Volvo's AstaZero: A Safety-Focused Proving Ground
Imagine a small town that was formed entirely to study safety. That's essentially what AstaZero is. Most automakers use proving grounds to test future vehicles in a controlled environment, where things like acceleration, braking, ride comfort and interior noise are evaluated as a car is made ready for production. There are also specialized facilities where automakers can test durability and reliability in extreme hot and cold conditions. But until recently, there wasn't a facility that specialized in safety. AstaZero, in Hallered, Sweden is the first.
While the facility is conveniently located near Volvo's headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, AstaZero is a facility that can be used by other automakers. It is large enough - just over a half-mile wide and 1.2 miles long -- that several automakers can be at the proving ground at the same time without any issues.
Real world tests in a safe setting
Even though it is a controlled environment, the setting allows for many different real-world situations. One section has two-lane pavement that simulate country roads meandering through hilly countryside. Yet these roads were carefully created with blind corners and pullouts for large trucks and construction vehicles. There's also a fake moose that can suddenly appear on the road to test how quickly and well a car's safety systems react.
There is a large open paved surface where automakers can also evaluate active safety, things like adaptive cruise control, traction and stability control, lane keep systems, and autonomous cars. We saw demonstrations of this with a Volvo approaching a stopped vehicle up ahead, and when it was clear the driver was not slowing down for the stopped car (you can imagine a scenario where the driver is texting for example), the Volvo stopped on its own to avoid an accident.
Urban test bed
The most interesting part of the proving ground, the one that is the most meaningful for anyone who drives in an urban setting, is the City Area. We walked around this area, which resembles a movie studio backlot, and saw four blocks of fake businesses lining city intersections. (Fun fact: the city blocks were designed to simulate Harlem.) There are bus stops and street lights, and the roads are the same width as two-lane city streets. In addition to the realistic cityscape, AstaZero uses dummies placed in the city to simulate pedestrians. It is very strange to walk around "Harlem" in sub-freezing Swedish countryside, but the façade is effective and it looks like a terrific location to evaluate how cars perform in the city.
AstaZero is the first of its kind, but it won't be the last. There is only so much data that can be collected in a lab environment or with computer simulations. Proving grounds like this can help manufacturers determine how their cars respond when the unpredictable happens, and we expect more automakers to invest in facilities like this in the future.