An Inside Look at Volvo Safety Engineering – Interview with Safety Centre Chief, Hans Nyth

(From the Archives – originally published Aug., 2010.)

When car buyers think ‘safety’, undoubtedly one of the first brands that springs to mind is Swedish manufacturer Volvo.  And for good reason.  Volvo has a long list of safety ‘firsts’ for a production company such as 3-point (lap and shoulder) seat belts for front seat occupants in 1959, 3-point seat belts for rear passengers in 1972, rollover protection system for convertibles in 1997, and in 2000, the company opened its own crash-testing facility.  For decades, Volvo has been a leader in automobile crash worthiness research and engineering, and the company has earned an enviable reputation for designing and building some of the safest cars on the road today.

Earlier this year, Hans Nyth, Director of the Volvo Cars  Safety Centre in Gothenburg (the company’s crash-test laboratory in Sweden) was attending a traffic safety conference in Edmonton.  We had a chance to interview him about the company’s approach to automobile safety and the nature of safety technologies we can expect in the future.

Nyth says that Volvo’s vision is that “nobody should be killed or injured in a Volvo by the year 2020.”  That’s a lofty goal, but one that Volvo has been working toward, using decades’ worth of real world data.  Volvo stands apart from the automobile industry when designing new cars.  According to Nyth, every new Volvo design starts from a huge database of statistics collected from Volvos crashed on public roads as well as in the company’s crash-testing facility.  “(Volvo) has been working with real life safety data for forty years”, Nyth explains.  Since 1970, Volvo Accident Research Team has collected data on more than 36,000 traffic collisions involving more than 60,000 Volvo cars.  The VART team attends every collision involving a Volvo within 2 hours of Gothenburg.  Data is also collected from other sources, says Nyth, “if a Volvo is in a collision, we get statistics from insurance companies when damage is greater than about $6,000 USD and we also get immediate information from the police.”

Volvo’s practice of using crash data in designing its cars has kept the company well ahead of government-specified safety standards, such as in “roof crush” – when the roof intrudes into the passenger compartment and strikes the occupant.  Nyth says because of the company’s use of crash data, current Volvos already meet the upcoming standard.  (The U.S. Government roof-crush standard becomes effective with the 2012 model year.)

Nyth says the database holding crash information collected since 1970 is where the new car design process starts.  “We always start with these real life facts.  Then we set the (design) specifications and verify them.  We’re constantly upgrading these specifications.”  He states with some pride that “injuries in Volvo cars have been reduced by two-thirds over forty years.”

Many of the advancements in designing safer vehicles have been in the “passive” safety category – elements of the car that protect the occupants during a crash, such as the structure of the vehicle, various types of air bags, seat belts, head restraints, and padded interior surfaces to name a few.

It’s undeniable that automobile industry has made significant advances in reducing injury and death in collisions.  Nyth cites electronic stability control – computerized technology that senses the vehicle is skidding, then applies brakes to bring the it under control – as the ‘best’ safety technology introduced within the last ten years.

And Nyth says that it is in new “active” safety technologies – systems that help prevent a crash –  where the next big advances in vehicle safety will be realized.

“The new era (will be in) active safety.  That is the area having the most advances.  Technology gives huge possibilities”, he says, citing as an example the new 2011 S60 sedan, with “Auto Brake” which uses a radar sensor and digital camera to monitor the vehicle ahead.  If vehicle ahead brakes suddenly, visual and audible alarms warn the driver, and if the driver does not react, full braking force is automatically applied.  This system also works up to 35 kph for sensing pedestrians.  (This is similar to City Safety system standard on the current Volvo XC60 compact SUV.  According to Volvo, 75-percent of all reported collisions occur at speeds up to 29 km/h and half of these happen in city traffic.  The City Safety system uses infrared technology to determine if the XC60 driver is approaching (within a specified speed range) a stopped or slower vehicle too fast and automatically applies the brakes if the driver fails to react.)  Such ‘active brake’ systems will be on all the next generation of cars, Nyth states.

What can the car-buying public expect in the future regarding automobile safety?   “The ability to detect oncoming cars is not far away, but the next step will be vehicle-to-vehicle communications infrastructure.  And Volvo is approaching active safety the same way – our starting point is real life data.  Volvo currently has 100 ‘normal’ customer cars on the road, fitted with special equipment:  video of the driver/front and rear view (linked to) GPS.  The cameras monitor where the driver is looking and (the position of their) feet.”  Nyth explains that eighteen months of research will be done to measure driver behaviour for developing new active safety systems that will be built into future models.

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