JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR - presented by Jaguar Canada
Entry Number 1: Volvo Centred on Safety
(originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)
Sweden - Peter Horbury, chief designer and vice president of Volvo Car
Corporation, points out the challenge of communicating Volvo’s primary brand
BMW owner can fire up the engine, a Mercedes-Benz owner can just close the
door, and they can enjoy one of the ‘core values’ of owning those brands.
to experience a Volvo’s core value, you have to experience one of the worst
things in your life - a big crash - and 99.5 percent of Volvo owners never
to mention, you’ll probably be too busy to notice.
Jansson, one of Horbury’s top designers, adds that his job is to allow
customers to see this value without necessarily having to experience it.
SSC - Safety Concept Car - introduced at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show, is an
attempt to show that safety can be combined with sportiness and sexiness.
of the big, boxy family car shape that people would expect in a safety car,
the SCC is a gorgeous two-door sport wagon, strongly (and deliberately)
reminiscent of the P1800ES of the early 1970s.
designers have been guilty of creating that stodgy image for safety
cars,’‘ says Jansson, who penned the final shape of the SCC.
car attempts to reverse that.’‘
of a crash in the first place is - or should be - the first step to safety.
Visibility is really the starting point, since 90 percent of information input
to the driver is visual, according to Stefan Nilsson, director of Volvo’s
new Safety Centre, located here in Volvo’s corporate home town.
SCC’s see-through front windshield pillars are a constant reminder of this
premise - and they look cool.
still is the fact that an “eye camera’‘ in the SCC measures where your
eyeball is relative to your bum, then automatically adjusts the seat reach,
rake and height, the floor height, pedals, shift lever and steering wheel
positions to ensure you are perfectly placed to see out of the car.
some of this technology is a long way off, a Volvo like the SCC is in the
cards. And yes, those see-through pillars will be included.
of which indicates how seriously Volvo takes this safety stuff.
not a new thing for them either. Over 70 years ago, one of the company’s
founders, Assar Gabrielsson, stated, “Cars are driven by people. Therefore,
the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is, and must remain,
current president and CEO, Hans-Olov Olsson, notes that every car on the road
today has a bit of Volvo in it - the company introduced the three-point safety
belt, surely the most important car safety feature of all time, in 1959.
Gustafsson, senior safety engineer with Volvo, notes that crash tests aren’t
the be-all and end-all of safety, but they are crucial to evaluating the crash
performance of new models.
trick is to crash-test cars under as realistic conditions as possible.
unique aspect of Volvo’s new safety centre, opened a little over a year ago,
is the adjustable crash track.
entire wing of the building, over 100 metres long and weighing over 600 tonnes,
is supported by twenty rubber air cushions - think ‘hovercraft’. It can be
swung through an arc of 90 degrees, so cars can be hurled at each other from
any angle, from head-on, to Tee-bone, to anything in between.
can reach 100 km/h, so the timing is frighteningly precise.
we are off by just one second,’‘ notes Gustafsson, “the cars miss each
other by 30 metres. We aim for a tolerance of 2.5 centimetres.’‘
also makes you realize how terrifyingly random real-world crashes are.
crashes take place directly over a glass floor under extremely bright light,
so the results can be filmed at very high frames-per-second speed, and from
car can also be mounted on a dolly and tossed out the open door to simulate a
roll-over crash, or even pitched into a ditch.
engineers can vary the angle in which the car is placed in the dolly, the
speed of the dolly, and the stopping distance - the shorter the distance, the
more violent the throwing motion.
cars are sometimes crashed again, to evaluate what happens in a multi-impact
crash - e.g., you bounce off another car, then into a pole. Again, a
today’s super-computers and ever-more-accurate mathematical modelling,
safety engineers usually aren’t too surprised by anything that happens in a
crash test. The simulations aren’t yet accepted by governmental authorities
as proof of a car’s crashworthiness - a step that Safety Centre director
Stefan Nilsson notes is probably decades away.
in standards around the world add further complexity. You’d think that
Swedes, Canadians, Americans and Japanese would all die the same way in car
crashes, but turf wars, politics and local regulations continue to impede
readers can take some comfort in knowing that Canada actually has the toughest
regulations in the world - not just the 8 km/h rear bumper test, but various
unique seat belt, lighting and other criteria.
American states even have different regulations about something as mundane as
licence plate position,’‘ says Nilsson. “Some of them don’t even
explicitly require that the plate be right-side up!’‘
near-universal adoption of the”ISOFIX’‘ standard for child seat
installation does give him some hope.
about the potential problem of ‘designing to the standard’ rather than to
what actually happens in the real world, Nilsson noted somewhat cryptically
that he “can’t comment on other car companies’‘, but as an example,
the Volvo S80, generally regarded even by competitors as one of the safest
cars in the industry, had many safety advantages that were not credited by any
governmental or third-party testing program anywhere.
also agrees with me that calling a car “safest in class’‘ because it
does well in one particular crash test is a hopeless simplification. “We
have to be very careful in communicating this information.’‘
witnessed a roll-over test of Volvo’s up-coming XC90 SUV. Apparently, the
engineers were initially a bit leery about letting journalists see this,
because a roll-over is one of the most complex, hence unpredictable, types of
crash event, and they weren’t certain of the outcome.
company’s North American public relations staff encouraged them to have
confidence in their product and their work - and so it came to pass.
car rolled three and a half times, with bits flying off in all directions. The
tailgate glass shattered, but the rest of the glass stayed intact.
car came to rest on its right side. A fork-lift set it back on what was left
of its wheels and suspension - and all the doors still opened, although they
required quite a tug.
of this comes about, you should pardon the expression, by accident. Hans
Wikman, project leader for the XC90, said, “We have no option but to be the
leader in safety in each class.’‘
Volvo’s holistic approach to safety, they knew they couldn’t just throw
weight and height at the problem.
also knew that the only driving advantage of a typical SUV is a higher seating
position, which offers better visibility over other traffic. Obviously, if
everyone sits up there, as is the case in many American cities, even that
advantage goes away.
predictable, stable handling and roll-over protection were top-of mind for the
were compatibility issues - car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian. “We like to
think of the XC90 as being the ‘unselfish SUV’,’‘ Wikman smiles,
suggesting that he really doesn’t understand the North American SUV market
long wheelbase, a wide track and a low centre of gravity all help in
stability,’‘ notes Wikman, although many SUVs have none of the above.
XC90 is based on the same platform as the S80 sedan, so the major masses of
the car are lower than most SUVs.
clearance isn’t an issue, since Volvo’s fully-independent suspension
creates all they need - the XC90 is, of course, not designed for serious
taller body does raise the centre of gravity somewhat, and with up to seven
passengers and the ever-present prospect of a loaded roof rack or ski box up
there, this risk is magnified.
counters with something called Roll Stability Control. If sensors in the car
determine that a roll-over is an even remote possibility, it automatically
cuts power and/or applies one or more wheel brakes to slow the vehicle and
reduce the risk.
of like Directional Stability Control, but on a longitudinal axis.
XC90 is by necessity heavier than other Volvos, which creates additional
challenges. “Extra weight may help you survive a crash with another object,
but it makes it harder to control a single-car crash, or to avoid a child
running into the road,’‘ says Wikman.
reinforced unitized body takes into account the added loads. Special
high-boron-content steel - almost impossible to cut or drill - is used for
added strength and reduced weight.
manufacturing and body repair people hate this stuff,’‘ says Wikman,
“but it was necessary to meet our goals.’‘
adults can fit in the third row of seats for short trips, they are intended
for children only. “If we had made enough legroom for adults,’‘ notes
Wikman, “it would have eliminated the rear crush zone, or we would have had
to make the vehicle too long. While North America is our biggest market, this
vehicle will be sold all over the world, and length is a big issue in all
seats can be folded, and the middle row adjusted up to 120 mm in reach, but no
seats can be removed. “This avoids potential safety issues about proper
re-installation,’‘ says Wikman. “Also, removable seats are heavy and
awkward to fit - we use robots on our assembly line to install these...’‘
- leaving unsaid the reality that few owners will have a robot in their
last twenty years have seen the most dramatic advances in car safety in the
industry’s history - seat belts, crush zones, air bags, radial tires, disc
brakes. The ”low-hanging fruit’‘, as the Brits would say, have been
gathered. Where are the next gains to be made?
are now surviving crashes that used to kill them, so protecting lower
extremities - legs and ankles - has become more important. Because these parts
of the body are very complex, they are difficult and costly to repair as well.
remains a serious problem - the patients may not die, but they are in
constant, debilitating pain for years - often for life. Volvo and others have
developed anti-whiplash seats that reduce the impact considerably.
the information flow to the driver is also a growth field. Better traffic
information, improved satellite navigation systems, warnings of impending
danger, whether related to weather, road conditions or even driver alertness,
are all on the horizon.
we also face the real prospect of driver information overload. Every decade
has seen a geometrical increase in stuff the driver has to deal with.
friend of mine - if he reads this, he’ll recognize himself - noted that ten
years ago, he was driving to his office in a high-powered sports car. He was
listening to his CD player, and dictating a memo into his portable tape
recorder. His radar detector suddenly went full-red, he slammed on his brakes,
the ABS kicked in - and then his phone rang!
got pretty busy in there,’‘ he noted with a grin.
will get worse before it gets better, says John Oster, manager of “comfort and driver information’‘ for
driver only has so many ‘cognitive resources’, says Oster. Some of these are
used up in the driving task, and that varies depending on whether he’s just
cruising along a quiet country road or changing lanes on a busy freeway. Other
resources must be applied to ancillary stuff like working the radio, answering
the phone, etc. When we add Internet access, e-mail, and additional
entertainment options like mp3 and DVD, it gets more difficult.
car maker is struggling with how to control all these functions. BMW’s
controversial menu-and-mouse-driven iDrive system may not be THE answer, but it
is an attempt at AN answer.
some of the driving tasks may also help. Automatic cruise control is in
production in a couple of cars already. “Lane-keeping’‘ systems which
determine if the car is straying from the lane and automatically nudge it back
on line are technologically possible.
communication from car to safety authorities in the event of a crash can also
save lives, by alerting authorities of a crash automatically, as GM’s OnStar
system already does.
refer to the ”golden hour’‘ - if medical assistance can be delivered
within an hour of the injury, survival rates soar.
approaches may also be useful. The XC90's project leader Hans Wikman somewhat
wistfully pointed out the shocking (to me, anyway) statistic that arises from
Volvo’s “flying squads’‘, which investigate all serious crashes
involving Volvos which take place within about 100 km of Gothenburg - they often
arrive before the police do.
of all deaths in Volvos in Sweden,’‘ says Wikman,”occur to non-belted
has one of the highest belt-wearing rates in the world - in the high-90 percent
range. You’d think that anyone buying a Volvo would be into safety, and surely
be aware that a safety belt is the first line of defence. Presumably, then,
drivers of other makes would show similar numbers.
many of these deaths are suicides or murders - we still have no real way of
many people apparently are still unaware of the life-saving potential of belts.
is why Volvo also offers the “Safety Showroom’‘ at their head office,
which, among other things, shows visitors how much your body actually
“weighs’‘ at various road speeds. A 90 kg body (i.e. mine) “weighs’‘
2250 kg at 25 km/h, 3150 kg at 40 km/h, and 4050 at 55 km/h.
you still think you can “brace yourself’‘, even in a low-speed crash?
Could you stop a Suburban with your bare hands at city speeds?
votre head a shake.
safety clearly is everybody’s business. It costs us all incalculably if we or
our loved ones are involved in a crash.
costs us all collectively too, in increased medical and hospital costs and lost
car makers are doing more than their share.
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