Volvo's Plan: The Swedes Will Take It All with Zero, Zilch, Noll

By Editors on October 1, 2009 8:04 AM

Volvo has always been very calculated and practical. Never one to jump into a fad, Volvo meticulously researches and develops ideas in order to bring the safest and highest-quality products to the market. Fifty years ago, Volvo brought us the three-point safety belt that has saved countless lives and injuries and continues to lead safety in the automotive world. The company is also a champion in reducing CO2 emissions, and in Europe Volvo has managed to reduce the C30's CO2 by half. But their successes aren't enough. Volvo wants more. In addition to producing vehicles with zero CO2 emissions, Volvo is also set on making them so safe that it is impossible for there to be a fatality or even an injury. Bold? Yes. Impossible? Only time will tell. Volvo plans to make its vehicles with zero CO2 and zero fatalities or injuries by 2020. If anything, the Swede's aren't ones to make empty promises, and it is easy for us to believe that they have an Ace up their sleeves. Even if Volvo's "innovations for life" plan doesn't hit the mark, if history has anything to say about it, they will come very close.

Every year it seems like Volvo is coming up with some inventive new way to keep people safe. Although one of our editors contends that safety is sexy, not all car buyers might agree. But nothing is sexier than being alive. And what's more, proactively protecting yourself and your passengers can be one of the most important decisions someone can ever make. Last year, Volvo introduced City Safety -- a system that completely stops the car at low speeds if another car is in front of it and a crash is imminent. But Volvo wasn't willing to rest on its laurels with this creative, accident prevention technology. Next year, the 2011 Volvo S60 will feature the new and improved City Safety with Pedestrian Detection. This new technology will not only detect a car at low speeds, but if a pedestrian form is ahead, the car will detect it using radar and will stop the vehicle. This new technology is important to Volvo's zero fatalities and injuries plan because last year in the U.S. alone, 4,700 people died from being hit by cars, and three-percent of pedestrian-involved accidents included critical injury. In addition to this potentially life-saving technology, Volvo also continues to improve upon the Driver Alert Control, Lane Departure Warning, Adaptive Cruise Control and Distance Alert Systems.

Safety also figures heavily in Volvo's decision to offer hybrid and pure-electric vehicles. Calculated and research intensive, Volvo has keenly watched other companies' attempts at hybrid and electric vehicles and learning from their missteps, is taking electrification to a whole different level. Not only does Volvo want its cars to be the safest on the road, it wants them to be the most efficient while still being practical for the consumer. Today's other hybrid and electric offerings have received leniency when asked to adhere to government safety standards (like the Tesla Roadster) or just don't perform as well as gasoline-powered vehicles in crash tests. Plus, most agencies don't even test for rear-end impact, which is significant to an electrically-powered vehicle that stores its batteries in back. Volvo is systematically testing hybrid and pure-electric drivetrains and promises to deliver a European-spec hybrid-electric powertrain capable of driving almost 750 miles on a single tank of diesel by 2012 and a pure-electric system by 2014.

We recently had the opportunity to drive test-mules equipped with both drivetrains in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo chose to equip a larger vehicle, the C70 wagon, with the hybrid powertrain to demonstrate how a larger vehicle -- suited for a family with cargo-hauling needs -- might perform. The C70 mule is equipped with a combined 275-horsepower engine (70hp electric, 205hp diesel) with electric all-wheel drive that propels the front axle with diesel and the rear axle with electric. Volvo says the wagon could travel about 30 miles on electricity alone, and almost 750 miles when combined with the diesel, but it remains to be determined if the driver will have a way to switch between the two power sources or if it will be automatically done by a system computer depending on driving conditions.

We found the C70 test-mule more than capable on the road and we enjoyed the extra torque from the electric motor when taking hills. The regenerative braking was smoother than some key hybrids on the market now, and all-in-all we couldn't even tell we were driving a hybrid, save for the extra torque and lack of engine-turnover upon starting it up. The engine could get loud when pushed, but that is something engineers plan to improve upon before bringing a hybrid to market in 2012. It is still unclear in what form the hybrid will come, although we think keeping it in a wagon like the C70 would fill a niche that currently is lagging behind in the efficiency race.

The battery electric vehicle (BEV) we drove was a Volvo C30 test-mule. The C30, already a lightweight, smaller vehicle designed for efficiency, makes sense for BEV status as it also offers a practical rear hatch for drivers who want a sportier look and feel with added utility. Volvo's primary goal is to offer a zero-emission vehicle "without compromises" according to Lennart Stegland, director of Volvo Cars -- Special Vehicles. Volvo will only bring a BEV to the market by 2014 if the car meets its stringent safety and quality standards while also accounting for customer convenience, design, cost and other humanistic factors. Studies are taking place concerning center of gravity, battery placement, handling, charge time and electric motor temperature, and tests show the current C30 mule can reach 60 miles per hour in about 10 seconds when equipped with a 110-horspower electric motor. It could take eight hours to fully charge the 230-volt 16-ampere battery, which currently has a range of about 90 miles, but Volvo is already exploring ways to improve upon this.

After driving the C30 test-mule, we can't think of much we'd improve upon the BEV's driving experience. Handling not unlike the current gas-powered C30, the pure-electric C30 didn't struggle on hills and didn't seem clumsy or burdened by the 600-plus pounds of battery. Although the goal is to give the production car a low center of gravity with a nearly 50/50 weight split between axles, we found the test-mule's rear-battery placement adequate, with only the lack of trunk space to remind us that there was a battery weighing down the rear. But it's not just about how the BEV will handle. Rear-placed batteries have safety implications like leakage in a rear-end accident. Volvo wants their first battery electric vehicle to be the safest possible, so it will continue to experiment with placement and put the vehicle through crash simulations until it is convinced that it's BEV -- in whatever form it will eventually be sold in -- is the safest on the market.

So is Volvo reaching for the stars when setting a goal to produce zero emission and zero fatality/injury vehicles by 2020? Perhaps. But if our recent test drives are any indication, Volvo is already off to a very solid start with their hybrid and pure-electric vehicle research. Plus, Volvo vehicles are already some of the safest on the road, with major collisions ending in just a few scratches and bruises. What we know for sure is Volvo will only bring these vehicles to the market after meticulous research and development. And who knows? Perhaps in 2070 we will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first zero/zero car, as we are now celebrating 50 years of safer rides, thanks to Volvo's three-point safety belt.