Volvo's crash laboratory at Volvo Cars Safety Centre in Gothenburg, Sweden is technically the most advanced in the world. With one 154 metres and one 600 tonne track of 108 metres (which can be moved from 0 to 90 degrees using air-cushion technology), the lab can be combined to recreate collisions with different impacts, angles and speeds.
"The knowledge we gain from the real traffic environment together with various crash tests is used in our continuous safety development," says Thomas Broberg, Senior Technical Advisor at Volvo Cars Safety Centre.
As you can see from the image above, there is a good reason why Volvo cars are associated with safety with billions of dollars spent to insure this reputation is well deserved.
For the engineers here, the testing track is a bit of an engineering feat.
"The movable track can be turned from 0 to 90 degrees. That gives us the ability to create realistic frontal collisions, both head-on and offset. In real life accidents, head-on and offset collisions often cause severe injuries due to their high speed. As well, we can create broadside collisions with two vehicles from different angles," says Thomas Broberg.
Each track is powered by two electric motors connected with steel cables. Two laser instruments measure the cars' positions and feed the data to the motors, which direct the impact to exactly the right position and time. The cars are released and run free from the cables a couple of metres before the point of impact.
"Other types of crash tests that we perform are for example roll-overs and rear-end collisions," says Thomas Broberg.
Of course not all crashes involve two cars, in fact single vehicle accidents account for a big chunk of road fatalities, as a result, the crash laboratory also has the capacity to recreate accidents in various traffic environments and outdoor settings.
Volvo researchers can recreate impacts involving anything from poles, road signs, drainage ditches, roadside barriers, water hazards (such as driving into a pond), and impacts into rock faces.
Despite all the real world testing, after a while, crashing cars becomes a little expensive, so Volvo (like many other manufacturers) have supercomputers which can create accidents in a virtual world whilst maintaining real world physics.
A crash situation can thereby be simulated any number of times with different parameters on very short notice - cars can be safety tested virtually before there is even a prototype - making sure no useless prototypes go into production. The supercomputer has the capacity to carry out more than 45 simulated car crashes per day.
How many cars does Volvo test/crash per year? around 400.
"We run these tests to learn how the human body is affected in different types of collisions and to verify the calculations in our computer simulated crashes," says Broberg.
Car buyers are always keen to see video footage of their next car undergoing crash testing, whilst many marketers believe that releasing this footage (regardless of result) can negatively impact on the cars performance in the showroom, it seems more obvious now that times have changed.
The crash tests are filmed with up to 30 high-speed cameras located above, alongside and beneath the impact site, and onboard the cars - both inside and outside. Volvo Cars uses the films when evaluating the tests by comparing the footage with the information from the car sensors. The crash test dummies are also equipped with advanced electronics that read how the human body responds in different accident situations.
It would make sense for the transport authorities to request that manufactures provide video footage of their crash tests to consumers. But how does it feel to witness cars after cars crashing into each other? Would that make you drive safely?
"When you witness a full-scale crash test in the crash laboratory, supercomputer or simulator, you realise how crucial it is for all occupants of the car to be restrained properly," says Broberg.
Volvo's brand image may be changing for the better, but its core values of occupant safety will undoubtedly carry forward for some time to come.