Electric car safety the Volvo way

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Volvo Electric Cars

Electric car safety, the Volvo way

Volvo’s pure electric C30 prototype was subjected to the same crash tests as petrol and diesel cars

By Michael Boxwell on May 14, 2011 12:16 PM

Think Volvo and the chances are you think ‘safety’ – while the rest of the industry eventually caught up, Volvo was the pioneer that introduced such crucial innovations as standard fit seatbelts, side impact beams and collapsible steering columns.

So with the company about to commence production of the pure-electric C30 Electric, we travelled to Gothenburg to discover how safety has been engineered into its latest EV.

It’s true, the C30 Electric is based on an existing production petrol model, but designing in safety isn’t as simple as you might think. The question remains, with the additional weight of batteries and the different characteristics of an electric drivetrain, can electric cars be as safe as conventional cars?

Jan Ivarsson — Senior Manager of Safety Standards at Volvo I grabbed Jan Ivarsson, Senior Manager of Safety Standards at Volvo Cars, for a chat about the company’s stance on electric vehicle safety. He was unequivocal about the thrust of Volvo’s programme: “Battery powered cars must have the same safety standards as other cars.”

And they have the technology. Volvo’s world-class safety centre in Gothenburg is a monument to vehicle safety. It is a huge research establishment with state-of-the-art facilities.

It includes a 600 tonne, 108 metre long test track that can be moved on rails to adjust the angle of test impact; an 850 tonne concrete block that can be moved to alter the characteristics of a crash test; and more than 100 crash test dummies, each costing £150,000. Video cameras, some capable of 20,000 frames per second, film the impact from every conceivable angle, including through a glass floor underneath the crash area.

On an average day, two cars are crashed at the test centre. Crash simulations can take place at impact speeds of up to 75 mph and may involve cars, trucks and buses. Outside, there is a large car park littered with the remains of hundreds of cars that have been crashed in the pursuit of safety.

The complexity of engineering crash safety into the C30 Electric is daunting. The centre of gravity, weight distribution and overall weight of an electric car are very different to that of a petrol or diesel car. Front impact protection is different because there is no engine to absorb the impact and spread the load.

Volvo has designed a new front crumple subframe to provide that function in its electric prototype.

Volvo Electric Cars

The C30 Electric weighs around 300kg more than the standard C30. The batteries require a lot of space. The car has a 400-volt electrical system to feed the drivetrain.

How can these be made safe in the event of an accident?

“There is no difference, in principle, between protecting batteries and protecting a fuel tank,” says Ivarsson. “The difference is the size of the battery packs, which take up a lot more space.”

“Unlike a conventional car, an electric car does not use the car body as a neutral [the car body is the earth for the electrics]. Instead, there is a shielded cable. Power cuts out if there is an earth fault. Power is also cut if the crash sensor is activated in the airbag system.”

Ivarsson has been very busy testing the safety of the new C30 Electric. Crash testing started almost two years ago. On the day I visited, a C30 Electric had just been crashed using a severe side impact test.

Whilst the car was extensively damaged, the occupants in the car would have been able to walk away and the damage did not intrude inside the passenger cell. It is an impressive demonstration of safety.

So back to the original question – can electric cars be just as safe as conventional petrol and diesel models? In the case of the C30 Electric, it seems virtually certain that the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

Volvo Electric Cars
Volvo Electric Cars
Volvo Electric Cars
Volvo Electric Cars

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