Crash tests and simulations – the ART of avoiding accidents

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.

Investigation of accident scene

By going to the site of a crash and carefully mapping out details, the Accident Research Team is able to create a picture of what happened before the accident took place, and what caused injuries when the accident occurred.

When ART was founded in 1969, it was due to a need to increase knowledge about traffic accident causes. 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 exactly 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 Elk 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 drafting (CAD) and simulation tools, fieldwork is just as relevant today as it was in 1969.

Safety is in our DNA.

Rikard Orell, Design Director, Volvo Trucks

“Both crash test 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. “Out in the field 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.” 

Sketch of a truck.

ART’s findings are used by Volvo Trucks’ design department to develop better, safer designs.

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 here that an entire solution is constructed from specifications they receive from different parts of the organisation.

“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 mirrors give the best possible view to the rear, while contributing to the truck’s identity. Inside the cab, all corners are rounded to minimise injuries during a crash, and the clean and simple design of the instrument panel helps to avoid distractions for the driver.”

Both Peter Wells and Rickard Orrell 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 take 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.

Head-on crash test.

In 1969, a crash test was the only way to test a truck’s robustness. Today many safety features are tested with the help of computer simulations, which are partly based on accident statistics from the Accident Research Team.

 

“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. Then it becomes increasingly important to have comprehensive collaboration between different actors,” says Peter Wells.

Seatbelts are still among the safety features that save the most lives globally.

Peter Wells, Accident Research Team leader

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. 

Peter Wells on a test rig.

The head of the Volvo Accident Research Team Peter Wells (right) together with his colleague Ulf Torgilsman, who is responsible for Volvo Trucks’ crash tests.

 

A basic prerequisite for achieving this is to have in-depth knowledge of human behavior, because the key to an effective system is that it should counteract human limitations. Within this area, Volvo Trucks has a dedicated department - Driver Environment and Human Factors- which, among other things, develops different interfaces between the truck and the driver.

Rikard Orell.

Rikard Orell, Design Director, Volvo Trucks.

“Essentially, it is about communicating the right information at the right time and in the right way. The driver should be able to maintain their concentration 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, Department Director.

Peter Wells.

"Peter Wells, Accident Research Team leader."

She and her team have made good use of ART’s database. It allow them to see if an accident pattern needs to be prevented, and to test and develop HMIs against various types of accidents. In turn, their work offers important input to the ART and Product Design, which both take part of her department's proposals for new HMIs 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 systems, knowledge of transitions 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.

"Frida Ramde, Department Director, Volvo Trucks.”

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. 

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