Volvo Experimental Safety Car

I'm a little bit sorry pushing this big orange wet blanket missive on you so early in the morning, but after a few days of performance cars, I figured it was time to sober up.

To start: the most pragmatic among you already know why Volvo was smart to invest in making their vehicles safer. 

  1. Driving is dangerous.
  2. It's likely many drivers will be involved in a crash at some point.
  3. If they survive a crash with little to no injury, it's likely they'll remain loyal to the car brand that saved their life.

It's all the more powerful when you consider that we're not often in life or death situations these days. Statistically-speaking, the world is safer now than ever before (but still not safe enough, obviously). When was the last time you were genuinely worried for your life?

I bet that the last heart-stopping moment you experienced was in a car. Why not push safety, something every driver can relate to?

With features that directly benefit the lump of human behind the wheel, Volvo's contributions have been astounding.

First blind spot warning system, first shoulder belts (and standard shoulder belts), and first front side airbags. They also notably pioneered the use of high-strength boron steel to make a stronger chassis, and helped develop the safety systems that most Fords around the world use today.

With features like airbags and ABS brakes, if they weren't first, they were a close second. They introduced their stability control system, Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC), 16 years ago. When I worked at a Volvo dealership during high school and the first summer back from college, I was amazed at their thoughtfulness for offering built in child booster seats, to provide a proper transition between a child seat and only a seat belt. And that reminds me of their whiplash-reducing seats, one of the first automakers to feature them.

But reading the marketing blurb for the all-new 2015 XC90 reads like excerpts from '60s science fiction, or pornography written for helicopter parents—I can't decide which:

"Our latest City Safety technology can help avoid collisions at speeds up to 50km/h and mitigate them at higher speeds. And because we’re used to long, dark Swedish winters, we’ve optimised the system so it also works at night, and when visibility is poor."

"Daunted by parking in the city? Don’t be. Whether it’s parallel parking or perpendicular parking, Park Assist Pilot, which is available as an option, does all the hard work for you […] Just accelerate, brake, change gears and watch the steering wheel turn as if by magic."

"If the steering intervention is not enough, or if you veer into the other lane, the system will warn you with either steering-wheel vibrations or a warning sound – the choice is yours."

"Tight parking lots and narrow city streets need never again be a stressful event – with the all-new XC90’s optional 360° Camera, you get a bird’s-eye, uninterrupted view of the car’s surroundings."

"We’re very proud of yet another world first: intersection braking. Imagine you’re slowing down to turn off a main two-way road. You have to cross traffic approaching in the opposite lane – in case you don’t see oncoming cars (or they don’t see you), intersection braking will apply the brakes for you, avoiding or mitigating a collision."

Ok, ok. Safety overload. But it's easy to put these things out of your mind unless you're confronted with a wall of text explaining features that are only in the car to save your life.

This is an automaker that has employed a task force for the last 40 years that's on call to survey accident scenes across Sweden that involve a Volvo. Read that again. In many cases, their research is so effective that they're seen as an asset to the police investigation of the crash. They investigate about 100 accident scenes per year, and many more through photos and other evidence. 

While your favourite carmakers are messing around trying to impress 13 year old boys who are obsessed with a car's Bridge-to-Gantry time, Volvo sends researchers out into the cold and see where their cars either succeeded or failed in keeping their occupants safe.

Let's see how ahead of the curve they were just 42 years ago, when Nixon was still in office. First shown at the 1972 Geneva Motor Show, the Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) was not only a glimpse into the future of automotive safety, but also the first look at the Volvo 240—a car so safe it was used as the reference car for today's NHTSA crash test ratings.

The VESC was actually a few different prototypes, with different combinations of features, including:

  • Front and rear airbags
  • Automatically-deploying headrests
  • Automatic seat belts
  • Spring-loaded steering wheel column pulled forward and away from the driver in a crash (essentially a more simple version of Audi's innovative Procon-Ten system…but developed 14 years earlier)
  • Headlamp washers and wipers
  • Rear window washer and wiper
  • Integrated roll cage
  • Engine designed to slide under the car in an accident
  • Bumpers that protect in collisions up to 16 km/h (10 mph)
  • Anti-lock brakes
  • Reverse warning chime
  • Automatic fuel cut-off
  • Backup camera(!)

Performance? Well…not much to speak of. With a powertrain that emphasized environmental friendliness, its fuel injected four-cylinder engine (the venerable B20) was fitted with an exhaust gas recirculation system and an early version of what we now call a catalytic converter.

Even though the car wasn't designed to look good, I think there's a simple beauty in its shape, a selfless blend of overwrought bumpers, tall glass, and a roof sporting a sharp ridge—the car's roll cage. It looks like a big orange plastic eraser that was moulded one half at a time and then stuck together.

At a cocktail party, the VESC's opening line would be, "I only look like this because drivers are terrible and can't stop hitting things. I've got a heart of gold under all this cladding, I swear."

There's something admirable about sacrificing looks for safety. It makes me wonder: shouldn't every car design value human life above all else?