Volvo’s Accident Research Team (ART) use their findings to increase safety
Since 1969 Volvo’s Accident Research Team (ART) has investigated thousands of traffic accidents. Through the team’s close collaboration with Volvo Trucks’ product development, its findings have a big impact: both in developing technical solutions to increase safety and through the global spread of Volvo Trucks’ safety philosophy.
When the Accident Research Team (ART) was founded in 1969, it was due to a need to increase knowledge about traffic accident causes: how did the vehicle survive the crash, how did it protect the driver and the passengers as well as the impact on other vehicles? By going to the site of a crash and carefully mapping out details, such as the position of skid marks and moment of impact, as well as interviewing police, the driver and medical staff, the team was able to create a picture of what happened before the accident took place and what caused injuries when the accident occurred.
At that time, a crash test was the only way to test a truck’s robustness and it was through the team’s new knowledge about actual accidents that Volvo could develop its classic Swedish Impact Test, which today is the toughest crash test for trucks worldwide. Since then, ART has built up a comprehensive database of accident types, which are used as the basis for computer simulations. But despite new possibilities to test different safety functions through Computer Aided Design (CAD) and simulation tools, fieldwork is just as relevant today as it was in 1969.
“Both crash tests and accident simulations build on certain standard types of traffic accidents. The problem is that reality is always different. No accident is exactly like any other,” says Peter Wells, who heads ART. “We examine the damaged truck thoroughly. Out in the field and afterwards, in our workshops, we are able to discover things, for example, that we might protect the driver so well against a certain type injury that other types of damage happen instead. After a while, we begin seeing a trend in a specific direction. If that happens, we change our crash tests, our simulations and our product design to better match the latest developments in driving behaviour and infrastructure.”
Volvo Trucks’ design department works in close collaboration with Peter Wells and his colleagues at ART, and has a central role in developing Volvo Trucks’ products. It is the role of the design department to merge the criteria from many different parts of the organisation into one holistic concept.
“Safety is in our DNA and that clearly emerges in the design expression of both the exterior and interior of our cabs,” says Rikard Orell, Design Director. “If we take the new Volvo FH as an example, we can see how the shape of the rearview is optimised for the best balance between direct visibility forward and the best possible view to the rear, while contributing to the truck’s identity. Inside the cab the logical structure and placement of instruments and controls, as well as the clean, uncluttered design of the dashboard avoids distracting the driver and keeps focus on the road. Rounded corners minimise risk of injuries in a crash.”
Both Peter Wells and Rikard Orell believe that technological development in the automotive and transport sector has entered an exciting phase. Active safety systems (which can help the driver by warning about an upcoming accident as well as taking control of the vehicle if the driver fails to act) are being introduced by more auto manufacturers as a complement to traditional “passive systems” such as seatbelts and airbags. There is also a development towards more automated functions, to better help the driver and limit the consequences of fatigue and distraction.
“At the same time, this is not just about new technology. Our traffic environment is becoming more sophisticated and connected, and today many accidents occur in cities where the number of vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists are constantly increasing. There is a limit to what a vehicle manufacturer can do on our own. It then becomes increasingly important to have comprehensive collaboration between different players,” says Peter Wells.
In addition to retrieving and storing information about various accidents and ensuring that new developments quickly reach the right people at Volvo Trucks, ART is also tasked with spreading Volvo’s safety message globally. This extends from talking about road safety at various forums, to initiating collaboration with research institutes worldwide as well as local infrastructure planners and decision makers, in order to jointly develop more efficient and safe transport systems.
A basic prerequisite for achieving this is to have in-depth knowledge of human behaviour, because the key to an effective system is that it should be designed with the drivers’ but also the technology’s abilities and limitations in mind. The systems should support and complement the driver. Within this area, Volvo Trucks has a dedicated team – Driver Environment and Human Factors – which, among other things, develops different interfaces between the truck and the driver.
“Essentially, it is about defining the actual function from a driver’s perspective with a strategy for how, when and where information, warnings and interventions should be presented. The driver should be able to maintain attention and not be visually or cognitively distracted by information from the instrument panel. Ideally, design solutions should be so good that they work globally. The iPhone is a good example of this type of ‘inclusive design’ – a phenomenon that I believe will become increasingly important in the future,” says Frida Ramde, Group manager.
She and her team have made good use of ART’s knowledge. It allows them to see if an accident pattern needs to be prevented, and to test and develop HMIs to support the driver and prevent various types of accidents. In turn, their work offers important input to the ART and Product Design, which both utilise her team’s proposals for new HMI technologies and their research on distraction and so-called “transitions” – the difficult moments when the control of the vehicle shifts between the human driver and the truck.
“With the broad scale introduction of active safety and automated systems, knowledge of transitions and other human factor challenges connected to automation, are becoming increasingly important. It is an exciting area where new technologies are currently being developed quickly. At the same time, the suitability of a vehicle’s HMI and how well it helps the driver is something that needs to be tested thoroughly before being released on the market,” she says.
Frida Ramde is backed up by Peter Wells, who believes that it will be possible to see a positive development in the field of road safety as more and more active safety features are introduced. At the same time, he wants to emphasise that the active systems should be seen as a complement to the passive systems, and not as a replacement.
“ART has unfortunately been able to show that there is too much reliance on the active safety systems and that many drivers drive without seatbelts. This is despite the fact that seatbelts are still among the safety features that save the most lives globally! One day we will have a day without traffic accidents but we are not there yet. And until that day, our work in making the world understand the dangers in traffic are as important as our technical safety solutions,” he says.