- Jan 18, 2011
Detroit 2011: Volvo pushes electric vehicle safety message to the wall [w/video]
From a safety engineering perspective, there are major differences between an electric car and a traditional car.
That's what Volvo's senior manager for safety strategy & requirements, Jan Ivarsson, said about the highest-profile project he's working on these days: crash testing the C30 Electric. We asked Ivarsson if potential electric vehicle (EV) buyers are more worried about safety with a battery-powered car than with a traditional ICE vehicle? He said:
As it is right now, I don't know if anyone is more worried about electrical vehicles but the thing is, if we deliver a car to the market, it should be as safe as any other Volvo car so that is what we have verified with this test.
What test is that? The first crash that Volvo has done with a fully charged battery in it's own lab in Göteborg, Sweden. Continue past the jump to get the full details – and to find out what Volvo's new CEO thinks of all this plug-in promotion (hint: he's still hesitant).
Photos copyright ©2011 Sebastian Blanco / AOL
In that first test, the crash dummies reported only "minor injury risks," Ivarsson said. This is due, in part to the C30 platform, which has been tested extensively already. Making the car electric, though, changes two important factors. Taking out the combustion engine for an electric motor creates a lot of empty space, only part of which is filled by the C30's unique ethanol heater (which sits in a safe position off to the side, but there is still a potential risk of ethanol leakage, Ivarsson said). The C30 electric's 95-mile pack takes up more space than the gas tank it replaces and the 400V system must be safe in the event of a crash. Upon impact, power is cut in 50 milliseconds, triggered by the same sensors that deploy the airbags. Ivarsson said:
The thing is, you need to verify the perfomance, doing the analysis on the dummy readings. That is number one. But then we also need to understand how the car works from a high-voltage perspective. Having 400 volts in the car is a challenge for us. That is also something we verified how we can disconnect the battery from the rest of the car in this type of collision. The third thing is that, since the batteries are sensitive to deformation, we would like to understand, if we have deformation, if it ends up with a ventalation of a cell or, in the worst case, a thermal event, a fire.
So far, the tests – Volvo has also run the C30 Electric through side and rear collisions, and crashed the car into a rigid pole – have resulted in changes like more side reinforcement and an additional structure in the front to absorb the energy. The C30 Electric has front, side and rear crumple zones and the battery is installed in the core of the vehicle. This puts the pack away from the passenger compartment and from the crumple zones.
From an occupant reading performance, Ivarsson said, Volvo is looking for at least the same safety readings as what the standard C30 got. On top of this, Volvo wants to make sure the battery disconnects in the event of a crash. What does that mean? It means that the contacts between the engine and the battery are cut, "so you have the energy that the battery carries ramain inside the battery." Thus, as long as the battery is intact, there is no threat of a shock. Similar to the way Chevy and Nissan did in the U.S., Volvo has had discussions with rescue personnel in Sweden in the development of this car to make sure they know how the car works and are comfortable with approaching one after a crash.
Volvo also worked with EnerDel to make sure the cells and packs are up to Volvo's safety standards. One way this manifests itself in the pack is that there is more lateral structure in the pack than was originally planned to absorb side impact energy. Ivarsson said that some of the cells are also oriented "in the most optimal way" inside the pack to take advantage of the deformation patterns.
The all-electric C30 is slated to enter production in 2011 and a U.S.-based test fleet is coming to the U.S. later this year. So what happens next? From a safety persective, Ivarsson said, there will be one more front crash, perhaps another pole test and maybe another side impact test. Each test generates "a lot of data," which comes in the form of muti-angle video, structural and dummy sensors as well as special battery monitoring data. "We have 384 cells in the car," he said, " and I think we have around 400 signals that we monitor just from the pack."
We also spent a few moments with Volvo's new CEO, Stefan Jacoby. We asked him if people are more worried about safety in electric vehicles than a gas-burning one? Jacoby answered:
I think so. We are very much aware how important safety is in our vehicles. This is our standard and we want to be at the forefront. This is one of the major compentencies that we have and we want to continue it with electric vehicles.
What about the progress of plug-ins as a whole? Jacoby was decidedly cooler on EVs than he was in Los Angeles last fall, sounding a bit more like he did when he was CEO of Volkswagen of America:
The vehicles are still too expensive and the technology is not yet ready for day-to-day use by the consumer. We have to carefully watch the developments not only here in the United States but also Europe and China and see how the markets are developing. That means we have to carefully invest in this market.
You can watch an impressive video of the crash right here: