Volvo Cars Safety Centre, in Göteburg, Sweden
Volvo Cars Safety Centre, in Göteburg, Sweden. Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Volvo has a long history of producing safe, functional and reliable vehicles, and over the past decade they’ve added luxury and sportiness to their vehicles. Today, Volvos represent a unique combination of social responsibility, practicality and personal pleasure.

This is a timely and appealing combination, according to Volvo Vice President, Lex Kerssemakers, and it figures prominently in Volvo’s “Vision 2020” program, which articulates the company’s focus and future direction. Specifically, these guidelines define and differentiate Volvo as a company driven by its concern for safety and the environment.

“Of course we still have to build ‘cool’ cars,” says Mr. Kerssemakers, “But by making safety and environmental issues the core values of the company, we’ll be taking a leadership role in developing the kind of vehicles consumers will want this decade and next.”

It’s a risk, he admits, especially as Volvo’s own research indicates that consumers rank engine performance and design as the two most important criteria affecting their purchase decisions. Nonetheless, with increasing traffic congestion, collisions, stringent government regulations and the depletion of non-renewable resources becoming critical for consumers and car manufacturers, Mr. Kerssemakers feels the new direction will prove prescient.

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible
Volvo C70 convertible. Photos: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

There’s no doubt that safety has been Volvo’s forte. The company pioneered the use of safety glass, steel cage construction, three-point shoulder/lap seatbelts, padded instrument panels, rear window defrosters, rear window windshield wipers, anti-lock brakes and side impact airbags. Recently it introduced the first anti-roll technology in an SUV (the XC90). Currently its Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) is showing up in vehicles like the Ford Freestyle and Five Hundred as well as its own sedans, wagons and SUVs, and the new C70 convertible.

In fact, the 2006 Volvo C70 is packing just about everything in Volvo’s current safety arsenal, including an Intelligent Driver Information System, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assist, a Roll-Over Protection System, structural deformation zones using four different types of steel to channel the forces from a collision while protecting the passenger compartment, a Whiplash Protection System, steel hoops that emerge from behind the rear seat in the event of a rollover, an Inflatable Curtain deployed from the top of the doors, a double bulkhead behind the rear seat, twice the torsional rigidity compared with the outgoing C70, and an anti-skid multilink rear suspension.

Developing this technology requires a significant investment, and in Volvo’s case, it took the form of a dedicated Volvo Cars Safety Centre, opened in 2003 at the company’s headquarters in Götburg, Sweden.

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible
Volvo C70 convertible crash tests. Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Autos recently witnessed a crash test at the facility, where one of the company’s XC90 SUVs broadsided the new C70 at a speed of 50 km/h.. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your expectations), the C70’s passenger compartment resisted the impact of the XC90. And at the point of impact, you could see the inflatable curtain deploy from the top of the C70’s doors, where it remained in a vertical position for several seconds, rather than almost instantly deflating as is typical with airbags.

At the Safety Centre, state-of-the-art crash test facilities and computer modelling laboratories are operated by engineers and technicians who conceive, develop, prototype and test a range of new ways to prevent accidents and injury. The “accident-proof” vehicle is a notion that Volvo safety engineers regard as a likely future technology.

Adjacent to the Safety Centre, the Environmental Research Group is developing ‘green’ materials to replace non-recyclable products used in vehicle construction. Jute, cotton, hemp, wood and soya could possibly replace plastics and synthetic fabrics in future Volvos, as the company works toward building the 100% recyclable car.

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible

Volvo C70 convertible
Volvo C70 convertible crash tests. Photos: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

“Using bio-based products would reduce the need to transport materials since many agricultural parts are made locally. Bio-based products are also easy to manufacture, help reduce agricultural waste and improve a vehicle’s biodegradability and recyclability,” explained Katarina Sundqvist, of Volvo Cars Research and Development engineering department.

Not only are natural fibres like jute and hemp a renewable resource, but they also reduce the weight of the car and the cost of its component materials. “Replacing glass fibre with lower density natural fibre can slash the weight of some of the materials used in a car by up to 30 per cent, contributing to lower fuel consumption and less pollution,” says Anders Högström of Volvo Cars interior and climate engineering strategy department.

“There’s a business case for this,” adds Ms. Sundqvist. “There’s a market for environmentally friendly, re-usable automotive components, and Volvo will register patents on materials it develops, and licence them to other manufacturers.”

So in one sense, as well as manufacturing its own cars, Volvo becomes an incubator for safety and environmental technology for use by other companies in the Ford group, and other manufacturers. While doing so, it builds vehicles that demonstrate these technologies in action, selling them to an increasingly environmentally conscious and safety-oriented consumer.

When it comes to global warming, safety, environmental issues, and the production of desirable and responsible vehicles, Volvo definitely wants to be seen as the “good guys.” The question is: where will the “good guys” finish?

Volvo safety-speak

  • SIPS – Side Impact Protection System

  • ROPS – Roll Over Protection System
  • WHIPS – Whiplash Protection System
  • IC – Inflatable Curtain
  • IDIS – Intelligent Driver Information System
  • RSC – Roll Stability Control
  • DSTC – Dynamic Stability and Traction Control

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