January 11, 2011
Most companies bring their newest, most savvy products to auto shows, especially something so prestigious as Detroit. This year, though, Volvo brought along a wreck.
On its stand is a crashed C30 Electric. “We are the first car maker in the world to show what a truly safe electric car looks like after a crash,” said the company’s president and CEO, Stefan Jacoby. Yes, eco-friendly cars are one thing, and Volvo is getting on that wagon, but safety is the thing that made its reputation, so Volvo is hardly likely to let that go.
After subjecting this compact car to a 40-mph offset frontal collision, the high-voltage batteries and cables remained intact. “This is of utmost importance not only to the people riding in the electric car, but also for first responders,” said Jacoby. “Not everyone in the process of launching electric cars are approaching the safety challenges as we are.”
One of those challenges is the smaller electric motor that drives the front wheels. In a conventional car, that big, heavy engine absorbs impact forces. In this case, Volvo reinforced the engine bay. The company also recognizes that the lithium-ion battery pack can only take so much punishment. So it has been located as close to the center of the car as possible and has steel bars around it.
There is a weight penalty for this extra protection. Jan Ivarsson, one of Volvo’s crash specialists, puts it at around 572 pounds. But there are other, lighter failsafes as well. In the event of a crash, power is cut off in 50 milliseconds, and an array of fuses will break the circuit if a wire touches the car’s body. In all, the C30 Electric went through eight types of crash test, coming out of each one with good results.
The point of all this is that Volvo is testing the waters. It already has a fleet of electric-powered C30 models in Europe and plans to bring a handful over to the United States some time this year. There is still work to be done: for a range of 94 miles, the batteries take eight hours to charge at 230 volts and 16 hours at 120 volts, which is a pretty long time. Looking further ahead, Volvo is also considering hybrid models.
One thing this exercise does is to underline that Volvo is retaining its traditional values even though it was bought by a Chinese automaker, Geely, last summer. Jacoby probably enjoyed announcing – within earshot of the Ford show stand – that the company had returned to profitability last year, since the Blue Oval was Volvo’s former owner. And if anyone was wondering how the crash test dummies fared in that first test – if they were humans, Ivarsson said they would have suffered just “minor injuries.”
Check out the crash test video on Volvo’s YouTube Channel.
COLIN RYAN has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.