x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Crash and learn: why Volvo's safety testers are no dummies

Volvo is destroying vehicles at a Swedish laboratory in an effort to achieve a vision: to have no drivers killed or hurt in its cars by 2020.

An S80 travels out of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre at a speed of 80kph for a road departure test. The car suffered a badly damaged front end but, had the test dummies been real people, the air bags would have saved them.
An S80 travels out of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre at a speed of 80kph for a road departure test. The car suffered a badly damaged front end but, had the test dummies been real people, the air bags would have saved them.

On my visit to the Volvo crash testing laboratory in Gothenburg, Sweden, my driving career had come full circle. Aged 16, on my first driving lesson with my father in his 1980 Volvo 240 GL, I was delighted when I engaged first gear without stalling. But I forgot to straighten the wheel, panicked, and the car ended up across the road, ringbarking one tree and taking out a sapling. Repairs would have cost more than the 12-year-old beast's value, so it was written off. 

The only real damage was to metal, two trees and my ego. It went down in family folklore as a bit of a giggle. Life went on. 

But life doesn't always go on. In the UAE, the road death statistics - 963 people killed in 2009 on the roads of the Emirates - bear that out. 

Volvo has been performing crash tests since the late 1960s and, in 2000, it built a dedicated crash test facility for that purpose - the Volvo Cars Safety Centre. It is a circular building, with cameras to film crashes from all angles. Cars can be crashed indoors and out, and a moveable track allows cars to crash into each other and into walls, rock cuts and grassy embankments. 

On our trip, engineers set up three crash tests, each with lessons for every UAE driver. But one test that went spectacularly wrong proves that accidents can happen anywhere, even in a place dedicated to eradicating them.

A speed shock

The first test was a recreation of an actual head-on collision that happened near Gothenburg last October between two Volvo V70s, a 1997 and a 2009 model. 

The 1997 V70 carried a 42-year-old man and his 20-year-old son. The 2009 V70 carried a man aged 39, his 36-year-old wife and their one-year-old baby. Everyone in both cars wore seat belts. The baby was restrained in a rear-facing safety seat. 

"We recommend that children are restrained in rear-facing seats until they are at least three years old," said Thomas Broberg, the centre's senior safety adviser. 

Our group of journalists watched from elevated seats through a window looking down on the indoor crash area. Grimly, it was reminiscent of a viewing gallery for an execution. There was a 20-second countdown, then two, bright-orange V70s hurtled towards each other and crashed with a sickening crunch, debris flying everywhere. 

It happened so fast but, like the real crash from last October, both cars were only travelling at around 60kph. Driver fatigue may have been a factor - the driver of the 1997 V70 had been on the road for a couple of hours when he veered onto the wrong side of the road. 

Given that excessive speed is a cause in 80 per cent of fatal UAE road accidents, according to the Dubai RTA, a crash at 60kph is a comparatively slow crash for the Emirates. But even at 60kph, both cars were written off. 

Everyone survived the real-life crash but the driver of the 1997 V70 had to be cut free from his car because his left leg was trapped. He suffered multiple fractures, including to his sternum and ribs, even though his air bag deployed. The mother in the 2009 V70 suffered dental injuries possibly due to a disconnected airbag. 

Most sobering of all was seeing the wrecked cars from the real crash alongside the test V70s - Volvo has a team of crash experts that examines actual accidents involving Volvos in Sweden, and they collect these cars for studies. As testament to the crash test's accuracy, the damage to the cars from the accident and the test cars was almost identical. 

Eerily, there was still dried blood on the airbag of the 1997 V70 from the real crash. The accelerator pedal was detached, the clutch and brake had moved to the right, the gearstick had sunk deep into the centre console and the bent and deformed dashboard looked like a cubist Picasso painting. In the 2009 V70, there was much less damage to the dash and, in the back seat, the baby seat remained in place. It no doubt saved the life of the one-year-old child. 

After the crash test, Broberg said how encouraging it was to see how far the safety features in the V70 model had come along since 1997. 

Technology to detect signs of driver fatigue for the man behind the wheel of the older car might have prevented the crash, Broberg surmises. 

"We now have sensors to monitor lanes and recognise the patterns of drowsy drivers."

Technology failure

The second test took place outside in the crisp Swedish sunshine. It was a test of a preventative technology that engages the brakes if the sensors determine that the car is approaching an object - in this case, a stationary truck - and the driver doesn't react. 

The group held its collective breath for the 20-second countdown. We expected the S60, travelling at 35kph, to engage the crash prevention technology and slow down to 12kph and stop just before impacting the back of the truck. 

But it didn't quite follow the plan. The car did not slow down and, instead, smacked into the truck at speed. Radiator coolant made a green puddle on the ground and, almost comically, the wipers activated. But the violence of a 35kph impact was shocking. 

"Oh, that was a mishap," said Broberg, laughing nervously. But he pointed out that, even when a test misfires, they can still learn and investigate why it went wrong. 

Crash prevention technology is the next step in car safety advancement and something Volvo is committed to, according to Broberg. When asked whether such technology creates lazy drivers, he disagreed. 

"No, I have heard that argument before. But I do believe that most people prefer to be in control and would rather be in control than just let a car drive for them," he said.

A driver fatigue lesson

The final crash for the day involved sending an S80 saloon out of the building at 80kph to veer off the path and career into a ditch. The result sent the car spectacularly into the air and slamming violently into an embankment. The front of the S80 was badly damaged but, as proven by the two crash test dummies sitting in the front seats, the seat belts and air bags would have prevented major injuries with real occupants. 

The two dummies had their faces smeared with lipstick so the staff could see where their faces made an impact. Their rubbery legs were covered in a white powder, to show where their knees contacted the dash and steering column. 

After checking out the damage on the final wreck of the day, I realised how nerve-shattering it was to witness three simulated car crashes, even in the controlled environment of the laboratory with no human casualties. 

I asked Peter Janevik, one of the active safety experts, if he ever was desensitised to the shocking nature of these crashes. 

"You get used to the noise," he shrugged. "But the tension just before a crash, that never disappears." 

The future


The crash centre is intrinsic to Volvo's lofty plans for safety."Our mission is for nobody to be killed or injured in a Volvo car by 2020," Broberg said. 

He added that, along with the technology such as chassis design, seatbelts and airbags that are standard on Volvos and help increase crash survival rates, "collision avoidance technology is already here. 

"This is the next stage - the new V70 has 'eyes' - sensors can feel what the driver is doing or not doing." 

Computerised technology has also found its way to the crash tests, said Broberg. 

"We can conduct around 400 real-life crash tests a year at the centre, but on our computers we can simulate 50 to 60 crashes a day. Imagine that, before a car even goes into production, it has already been crashed thousands of times." 

Volvo is also undertaking a three-year trial of their cars to study driver behaviour and gather data to find out how Volvos can be further developed to improve safety in line with human behaviour. 

One hundred cars, driven by volunteers, will be fitted with tiny cameras and black box-style technology to monitor everything from driving patterns, speeds, distances travelled and even bad habits, such as using the phone and drinking coffee while driving.

"The people may be self-conscious at first because they know they're being watched, but the cameras are pretty well hidden so they will forget and go back to picking their nose again," laughed Broberg. 

Volvo's takeover by Geely, the Chinese car maker, should not adversely affect the work done by the safety experts, according to Broberg. He said the finer points of the deal with Geely are still being determined and it is too soon to comment on whether Geely will take advantage of Volvo's safety expertise. 

"But I would like to think that they will," he said. 

As I left the centre, I saw rows of Volvos awaiting destruction at the hands of the crash test experts, all intended to help with the car maker's 2020 target. It's a sad ending for a new car, but learning lessons from the execution of machines is better than the alternative loss of human life on our roads.