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By Laurance Yap
Gothenburg, Sweden – Listen to the team of engineers and analysts at Volvo describe what they do to investigate crashes and then integrate the lessons from those investigations into new-car designs and you quickly begin to understand that there’s only so much they can do. In the end, it’s the driver that’s always the weakest link. For a number of reasons, he or she’s the weakest link at the time of the collision itself and can often be the weakest link during the investigation of the crash.
Take, for example, a man we will call Anders, the owner of a Volvo V70 wagon on the way into Stockholm on a shopping trip with his two children, ages four and nine, in the back. Shortly after entering the main expressway, he comes upon a traffic jam that has reduced traffic to a dead stop, while he’s still travelling at somewhere between 85 and 110 km/h. Seconds later, Anders’ V70 is a total loss, its front end crumpled up into a tight little metal ball underneath the back of a delivery van that was parked by the side of the road. He’s in the hospital complaining of injuries to his wrist and with a sore neck and back but otherwise okay; his two children emerge from the back seat (they were on booster chairs and seat-belted in) unscathed.
Because the accident scene is within an hour’s drive of Volvo’s traffic accident research team (dare we call it TART for short?) headquarters in Gothenburg – and because Anders’ V70 is a new model that the team still wants to gather data on – the local authorities send out a page to Volvo and a team appears at the scene of the accident to take measurements from the scene and to document it with photos and witness interviews. Later, Volvo’s team will interview the people in the car after they’ve recovered – first, soon after the accident and six months on – and they’ll also be in touch with the rescue team to document exactly what they had to do to extricate the wagon’s passengers.
In Volvo’s own laboratories, even more data is gathered and analyzed. Anders’ car finds its way into Volvo’s laboratories, where it’s put on a lift, lit with floodlights that would do a movie set proud and pored over to an excruciating level of detail. Amazingly, despite the amazing amount of damage to the car, the doors all still work, the seats are still in place and the dashboard remains largely intact.
Every part of the car pertinent to the crash is photographed, measured and compared against computer models. Did the front sub-frame deform like it did during the thousands of crash simulations performed during development? Did the crumple zones crumple the way they were supposed to crumple? Did the airbags deploy as they should have? And what else has happened during the collision that the research team has never seen before? Such information is logged into a huge database of crash data which contains information from over 36,000 crashes since 1970, involving over 60,000 occupants.
Such data is not only used to verify whether the car’s design is performing as it should, but it is also shared with vehicle engineers working on next-generation models. They continuously incorporate lessons learned from the accident research team into next year’s cars as well as next-generation cars. According to Volvo, no other carmaker in the world has quite this level of knowledge-sharing; it’s a result of a unique partnership between the company and the Swedish traffic authorities that has the accident research team on the scene right away – and given deep access not only to the cars but also to additional data gathered during subsequent investigations.
The team does in-depth investigations of about 100 crashes a year and their work often goes far beyond just figuring out what happened with the car. Human factors are an integral part of any study; in Anders’ case, it involved several questionnaires and interviews after the crash happened. Why didn’t he get on the brakes before piling into the back of the van? Was he stressed about finding a parking spot upon arriving in Stockholm? Excited about the prospect of going shopping for ski equipment with his children? Did it, as Anders told his insurance company and the authorities, just happen, like so many of these things seem to do? Well, no – six months after the crash, Anders admits to Volvo that he actually had an epileptic seizure behind the wheel – but didn’t originally disclose it because he was afraid of losing his driver’s license.
Volvo says it learns as much from the people it interviews as it does the cars. Research not only from the accident research team but also from tests performed with other drivers has directly influenced the company’s development of active-safety systems like the accident warning feature (which sounds an alarm, flashes red lights in the driver’s field of vision and pressurizes the brakes when it senses you’re about to hit the car in front) on the new S80. Anders’ crash, for instance, reinforced the engineering team’s desire to develop accident-avoidance systems that can automatically apply full braking in the case of an unavoidable collision – when the driver may not be able to control the car, never mind be aware of what exactly is happening.
Such systems, which would involve a camera as well as the radar sensor already installed in the S80, are about five or six years away, but Volvo thinks they would contribute greatly to a reduction in road fatalities. In those years, the company will gather data from hundreds of additional collisions, perform dozens of tests involving inflatable balloon cars acting as crash targets and crunch terabytes and terabytes of computer-simulation data (there are 50 people alone whose full-time job it is to conduct crash simulations). Meanwhile, Volvo’s active-safety team will also be conducting more interviews and studies with drivers in the hope of better understanding what goes on in drivers’ heads – and thus figure out what strategies would work best to keep them alert and safe before an accident becomes inevitable.
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It’s this emphasis on real-world study – in addition to the 400 or so crash tests that the company performs each year – that Volvo considers its real point of differentiation from some of its competitors. Some of them may offer the same safety features, perform just as well in government-mandated crash tests and score high on insurance-industry scales. But few of them will have been developed with input from a real-live accident investigation team, or from studies that spend as much time thinking about the driver as they do the car.
Or, as another journalist visiting the research team’s lab that day said, “I bet Anders took his insurance check and walked right back to the Volvo dealership.”