The test engineers at Volvo live the dream. They get to invent all manner of nutty crash tests. One day they are hurtling moose-shaped test dummies into S60 windshields, the next they are launching 2015 XC90s over dirt ramps at 50 MPH. How do they come up with all these crazy tests? Obviously they try to mimic real-life scenarios, but there is more to it than that.
Anders Axelson is one of Volvo’s safety gurus. His twin girls dragged him along to an amusement park a while back, and that little light bulb appeared above his head. “Watching people being thrown in all directions during a ride in the ‘Robocoaster’, I suddenly realised that those rapid, random movements resembled the violent forces occupants in a run-off road crash are exposed to,” said Axelson. Run-off accidents are those in which the vehicle leaves the roadway.
Volvo says that half of the fatal accidents in the US are of this type. In the past, these were drunks nodding off. Fully a third of all fatalities in the US have historically been drunk drivers. However, these days, distracted driving is all the rage and people thumb-typing ” OMG! LOL” need to be saved from themselves. In forward and side impact tests the crash dummies move in a predictable way. However, to simulate a run-off crash test, Volvo needed to come up with a way to make the occupants move around randomly, like they do in when they drive off an embankment. The way amusement park rides toss riders around was the inspiration and guide Axelson needed.
There are no regulatory agencies doing run-off testing – yet. Lotta Jakobsson, the Senior Technical Specialist Safety at Volvo Cars Safety Centre, doesn’t care. Volvo is past that now since everything they produce aces every test. She says “Committing to safety is not about passing a test or getting a ranking. It is about finding out how and why crashes and injuries occur and then developing the technology to prevent them.”
The new test Volvo came up with requires a vehicle to first speed up to 50 MPH. It then hits a ditch and is launched two feet into the air. Volvo, in all seriousness, calls this the “free-flight” stage of the test. In the US market this will be called “Getting big air-yo.” The vehicle then comes crashing down. That impact, even though the Volvo lands on its wheels, causes the same G-forces on the driver and passengers that a test-pilot endures when using an ejector seat. If you think the test is then over you don’t know Volvo. Next the vehicle goes over a “rough road” portion that simulates the texter’s ride down an embankment. Having likely broken their spine on impact, they now get a few rough side to side and up and down shakes to see how they like them apples. Finally there is a forward crash at the end. The test dummy used in this new test is named Thor (pronounced “tore”).
The Swedes like the outdoors, but they also like things neat like. So after they conduct actual Dukes of Hazard-style outdoor crashes with real Volvos, the test is augmented with a multi-axial robot in a test lab that challenges the restraint systems of the Volvo vehicle.
The result of this research is that your next Volvo will have a deformable section between the seat cushion and frame to protect your spine when you land your Volvo following the free flight stage. Your Volvo will also know when it is in a run-off as a result of new sensor technology. The sensors tell the seat belts to tighten up and keep tightening so that you maintain an upright position and are not thrown around the cabin (launch, landing and rough road). Volvo’s system reduces spine forces by a third which means that after the crash you may be able to exit the vehicle and begin the search for your iPhone that went out the moon-roof upon lift-off.
Should the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety adopt this new test, cars that pass will be ranked Smokey and the Bandit Wicked Awesome Plus – but only if the vehicle can come with optional forward collision prevention.