We’ve all seen those gut-wrenching tire- and fire-spewing race-car crashes where the driver miraculously walks away. Volvo wants to give people the same sense of invincibility by producing a virtually injury-proof car by 2020 that would ensure drivers and passengers survive all but the gnarliest accidents.
The Swedish automaker is leading a race to create a "matrix of systems" that use radar, sonar and other technology to prevent and mitigate crashes. In the event of a crash, when most drivers freeze, the car would steer and brake on its own. Cutting pre-impact speed by even 10 mph would cut the death rate in half, so self-braking systems are key to reducing traffic fatalities.
Volvo, which is owned by Ford Motor Co., is not alone in pursuing the injury-proof car, which Sweden's head of traffic safety calls the biggest revolution in the auto industry since the seatbelt.
"If you look into the future, we as a community will not accept that we have injuries," Jan Ivarsson, head of the Volvo safety team, told Reuters. "We have other things that are important in life."
To reach the 2020 deadline -- 12 years isn't that long in the auto industry -- Volvo has stepped up testing at its vehicle-safety testing center in Gothenburg, Sweden, where it stages 400 accidents a year. They've got two 150-meter tunnels, including the auto industry’s only rotating test tunnel, where engineers can replicate head-on and side-impact collisions and even dunk a car in a pond. With all the ways they've developed to destroy a car, Volvo's got the world’s most advanced car and test-dummy torture chamber.
Volvo recently invited Reuters to watch an S80 test mule get its nose flattened at 35 mph by an 850-ton steel-clad block in a carefully choreographed collision that took one-tenth of a second to transpire, but two weeks to set up and another two to dissect. Engineers shot the smashup from almost as many angles as the Super Bowl and even put a camera in a glass-topped pit to record it from below. Sensors on the car, the crash block and two male “biomechanical measurement devices” - what the rest of us call crash test dummies - collected terabytes of data.
Volvo_crash_2 Volvo’s 20-member safety A-Team also culls info from government agencies and insurance companies, and it has a strong-stomached crash-site crew on call 24/7 to investigate real-life accidents to figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.
Why the obsession with safety? Money. Lots of it. Traffic accidents cause about 1.2 million fatalities and 50 million injuries a year, and Scott McCormick, president of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association, says $450 billion is lost in accidents and deaths each year. Still, it's tough to get people to do much about it.
“Not to be mercenary about it, but we have to look at what we spend on it,” McCormick says. “And unless someone can construct a business model around it, vehicle safety won’t get as much attention and it won’t get the resources. The issue with Volvo is everyone has a demographic for their cars. And although all carmakers have buyers who want to be safe, it’s how they (Volvo) sell what they’re doing.”
Volvo's long been at the forefront of vehicle safety. It invented three-point safety belts and was the first to use crumple zones, side-impact airbags and rear-facing child seats. In a 2006 survey of 500 consumers conducted by Accenture, more than two-thirds of respondents ranked safety as the most important technology to include in their vehicles, 70 percent were willing to shell out extra for it. Volvo's long been the best at marketing safety, and a recent poll by Consumer Reports found 77 percent of respondents consider Volvo the safest car on the road.
But the competition is catching up and Volvo wants to stay ahead of Lexus, with its Pre-Collision System, and Mercedes Benz with its PRE-SAFE braking system. With other car companies vying for Volvo’s once-exclusive rep as the safest thing on four wheels, the Swedish company is the first to strive for an injury-proof car.
It won't be the last.