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Thrashing Swedish steel in the quest for a death-proof Volvo by 2020

The new XC90 is a key step in Volvo’s plan to be injury and fatality free by 2020. It is a bold goal, but after seeing the steps the company has taken in person, it is much easier to believe it is possible.

In 2010, Volvo Cars was sold to Chinese automaker Gheely by Ford. And, after having been freed from its American overlord for the first time in 11 years, it was allowed to make independent decisions.

One of the first made was a doozey; Volvo announced a goal, dubbed ‘Vision 2020,’ which stated that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by the year 2020. This staggering goal is now just five years away, and we are seeing the first concrete step towards its completion: the all-new XC90.

We were at the launch of the car in August, but Volvo wanted us to come back to Sweden to see just how close Volvo is to living up to its goal, not to mention see some XC90s get crashed.

Improving at the margins

If Volvo’s statistics are to be believed, the company already builds the safest cars in the world by a fair margin. In Sweden, Volvo drivers are only about a third as likely to die or be seriously injured as other drivers. Yet, when the goal is not just to minimize fatalities and injuries, but also to eliminate them, it isn’t enough to be better; Volvo has to be perfect.

When Volvo discovered that it had failed to improve in one relatively small area, it decided to make big improvements.

So when Volvo discovered that it had failed to improve in one relatively small area, single car run-off road accidents, which aren’t even subject to testing, it decided to make big improvements. The result is the new XC90, which incorporates any number of safety firsts.

Perhaps the most significant of these advances is also the smallest. The XC90’s seats incorporate an ingenious system to absorb the sometimes-fatal energy generated when the vehicle leaves the road. The base of the seat contains a deformable metal element, designed to crush during an accident, rather than translate vertical g-loads into the occupants’ spine.

To ensure that the system works the way it is supposed to, electric seatbelt tensioners activate when the cars onboard sensors detect the car is leaving the road. These tensioners quickly pull the occupant against the seat, holding their spine in the correct position.

I had the opportunity to feel what these were like in a demonstration. The speed and force with which the seat belts act is incredible. Yet, despite this it is still not a jarring or uncomfortable experience.

It is important to remember that Volvo also wants to prevent serious injuries. This includes the kind of non-lethal but permanently debilitating joint injuries that are unfortunately a common result of accidents. One common cause of these sorts of injuries is the brake pedal. Typically during an accident, drivers have their legs firmly planted on the pedal, with stress on their knee joint. This direct connection allows force from the collision to be transferred directly to the joint.

To prevent this from happening, Volvo has installed a collapsing brake pedal. When the vehicle detects a collision, the pedal is allowed to drop away, giving the driver’s leg cushion during the accident. To prevent the car from rolling, once the XC90 detects that the collision is over, it automatically sets the brakes.

Holistic safety

All of these technologies were on all on full display, as Volvo put on one of the most impressive displays I have seen during my career as an automotive journalist: an XC90 crash test.

The setup was brutal; the XC90 would leave its launch rail traveling at close to 45 mph and slam into a ditch. Looking down on this terrain from the stands, it was easy to understand why real-life accidents like this one see kill people.

When the vehicle detects a collision, the pedal is allowed to drop away, giving the driver’s leg cushion during the accident.

As the bright orange XC90 left end of its test rail, no imagination at all was required. The vehicle slammed into the ditch and was promptly launched something like ten feet in the air. Inside the vehicle the seatbelt tensioners had already gone to work locking the crash test dummies into their seats. So by the time the massive, seven-seat SUV came crashing to the ground, there was very little damage to see.

The front left wheel had borne the brunt of the impact, and collapsed. The rest of the car and its occupants, however, were remarkably intact. All of the doors opened and every visible piece of electronic equipment still worked.

In fact, a Volvo safety engineer told me that, despite the violence of the collision, this XC90 would almost certainly be worth repairing.

That is thanks to the fact that, as well as advanced safety technologies, Volvo still places a major emphasis on passive safety — namely, building an incredibly strong body. In the new XC90 that translates to using an industry leading 38 percent of hot-formed, ultra-high-strength steel in the frame. This makes the XC90 arguably one of the strongest passenger vehicles ever made.

It is also one of the smartest. One of the things I heard over and over again from Volvo engineers was that, for active safety systems to work, they have to not only meet engineering goals but also consumer expectations. The best system in the world won’t work if it is so annoying that consumers turn it off. This has meant that Volvo has focused a great deal of its effort on delivering intuitive and satisfying performance.

This dovetails with the company’s broader view on autonomy as an aid to drivers rather than a substitute. Peter Mertens, Volvo’s head of R&D, explained that while Volvo is heavily engaged in autonomous driving research, the sort of fully autonomous driving promised by some companies “in the next five years is frankly bullshit.”

Instead, Volvo wants to pursue systems like the auto-brake system it showcased at the Astazero active safety testing facility. Like most auto-brake systems, this uses sensors to detect an upcoming collision and either prevent or mitigate it by automatically engaging the brakes. On some cars I have tested, this sort of system is intrusive to the point of feeling unsafe. Volvo decided to trust drivers more, and allow the system to engage later. In fact, the system will only engage the brakes if it determines that an accident will occur in less than one second. Otherwise drivers are provided with an escalating warning.

All of this reflects a different sort of commitment to safety than just about any other company: a commitment that was reflected in the way Volvo executives discussed it.

A long way to go

Volvo has a lot to accomplish in the next five years if it is to meet its goal … and the engineers know it. Henrik Ljungqvist, the program manager for body structure, told me that active safety has to dramatically improve. No matter how much ultra high strength steel a carmaker uses, it can’t make a car invulnerable. At least, not when Volvo cars will be sharing the road with 20-ton Volvo trucks.

Volvo has a lot to accomplish in the next five years if it is to meet its goal … and the engineers know it.

This is the real challenge, because Volvo can’t control the environment its cars are in. But as Volvo’s CEO Hakan Samuelsson explained to me, Vision 2020 is “the only target you can have, you can’t say only fifty people should die in a Volvo; it has to be zero.”

This was a commitment that seemed to be shared by everyone I talked to. Ljungqvist also told me that under Ford, Volvo constantly fought losing battles to have platforms and technologies built to their safety standards. However, now under new management and aiming for Vision 2020, “we have only ourselves to blame if we can’t do it.”

With that in mind, the XC90 is a first step towards seeing if Volvo truly can make a car in which no one will ever die.