In order for a new car to be within half a chance of enjoying strong sales and market success, highlights Iain Robertson, it must pass a gruelling series of destruction tests that are designed to demonstrate by how much it can protect its occupants.
You may have spotted the abbreviation ‘NCap’, which stands for New Car Assessment Programme. While there exists a Global NCap and crash testing has been an important aspect of new vehicle design and production since the late-1970s, there are around a dozen international standards’ bodies that carry out crash investigations and assessments in several car making nations. Interestingly, both Volvo Cars and Saab (sadly no longer in existence), the Swedish manufacturers, have worked intensively on carrying out their own test procedures since the late-1960s.
At Volvo Cars, they are known as the company’s ‘in-house detectives’. Yet they could also be called the Swedish car maker’s own CSI team, with a little twist on the acronym of the popular TV series. In fact, the crash scene investigators of the Volvo Car Accident Research Team, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, are ready around the clock to ensure that Volvo Cars learns from real-life accidents and improves its cars constantly.
“The Accident Research Team’s hard work and research allows Volvo Cars to make certain that a tragic traffic accident can lead to something good: ever safer cars”, states Malin Ekholm, who is Head of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre. “By analysing closely what has happened during each phase of a road traffic accident, the team provides crucial information on what can be improved on Volvo cars.”
Making unstinting progress, the team has been in operation since 1970. Whenever an accident involving a Volvo car occurs around Gothenburg, in Sweden, be it night or day, they get to the scene as rapidly as possible, when notified. No sooner do they arrive on-site, the team commences an investigation and documents the sequence of events in as much detail as is possible. Naturally, Volvo works very closely with the Swedish Police, emergency services and breakdown recovery firms and has done so ever since its safety centre was founded.
Unsurprisingly, asking questions is the way to generate information from the driver, other occupants in the vehicle and any observers. While very subjective, they include: how forceful was the impact? How quickly did the active safety systems intervene? What were the effects on the passengers? Other questions include: what was the weather like? What was the time of day/night? In what condition were the road markings? It is difficult to maintain a stance that is non-judgemental but Volvo has worked tirelessly to create as close to a standard set of repeatable questions as possible.
The work continues back at Volvo’s office: the team requests publicly accessible police reports, contacts the driver and examines the car, whenever possible and if it is accessible. The team also tries to understand the driver’s first-hand experiences of the incident, a process that involves the Volvo Cars Safety Centre’s behavioural scientists that also make-up the team. Finally, the team will ask the people involved in the accident to share their medical records, which allows them to take note of any injuries sustained, or how medical conditions may have contributed to the incident. These are analysed by biomechanics experts, in cooperation with physicists, to understand the exact causes of all injuries incurred.
All the data and knowledge collected is coded and depersonalised. Conclusions from this research are shared with Volvo’s product development teams, who, in turn, use it to design, develop and implement new technologies in future models. The team also identifies things that cannot be solved today, a key factor, as it allows Volvo Cars to remain at the forefront of safety development.
Every year, the team investigates around 30-50 accidents in person, however, road traffic accidents happen all around the world and some of the crash scenes can be impossible to reach in time. In those cases and to a degree possible, the detectives work with the support of Volvo personnel and emergency services to map out accidents closer to the site. After all, Scandinavian roads present some unique challenges, just as roads in France, Germany, the UK, the Far East and the Americas have their own specific layouts and construction, all of which can play a part in assessments.
In support of the individual cases, the team also uses other sources of information such as public accident databases, which are found globally, to make sure that Volvo’s necessary and well-ordered steps are taken. As Ms Ekholm outlines: “The Accident Research Team is far from the only source of research data for our safety experts. However, it plays an important role for us to really understand the details. Accidents continue to happen but, nowadays, the consequences are much milder and serious injuries are significantly rarer than they used to be.”
Over a decade ago, Volvo took a bold step in its forward marketing by launching the 20:20 programme. Despite the depth of research carried out by Volvo Cars, it was either brave, or exceptionally foolhardy, to suggest that its aim was that no human being would die in a road traffic incident, involving a Volvo car, by 2020. The company actually achieved its stated aim almost a year ahead of time and, when you consider the variability factor of human intervention, it was an amazing projection.
Volvo can claim justifiably that its cars are the safest in the world. Yet, it is worth highlighting that, whether considered on a global, or more local scale, the NCap process is also responsible for improving in-car safety, as well as that of pedestrians and animals, for other vehicle manufacturers. While no other carmaker, other than Mercedes-Benz, has invested so much time and funding in crash research, it is worth remembering that Volvo was selfless enough to not just invent the modern car, three-point safety-belt system but also to ‘gift’ it to the rest of the world motor industry.
Conclusion: One of my gravest fears was that Chinese ownership of Volvo Cars might lead to a reduction in the safety standards and research carried out by the company. Fortunately, Volvo remains in charge of its own destiny and the Geely Corporation continues to fund totally the firm’s highly productive car safety centre.