GOTHENBURG, Sweden Witnessing a test crash at Volvo's brand new A100 million safety center brings on the same churning of the stomach that seeing a real crash produces.
Sitting high above the test track in an observation area, a spectator can see a Volvo V40 wagon coming straight on from the 108-meter moving wing of the building at 25kph. Suddenly a Volvo S80 sedan appears from the right, having traveled from a long way down inside the 154-meter building's other wing. It's moving at 50kph.
The cars meet, and there's a sickening sound of metal crunching into metal. The cars rebound before coming to a rest.
The whole scene has been bathed in light from 52 8,000-watt photo lamps and filmed at every angle at 3,000 frames per second. Such a crash can be repeated six times a day.
The indoor test track is the centerpiece of Volvo's safety center here in Gothenburg. Conceived before Ford bought Volvo Car Corp. a year ago, the safety center represents Volvo's bid to be sure no competitors threaten its top reputation for auto safety.
Inside this building and related laboratories, Volvo can learn what effect various kinds of impacts have on everything from headlamps to human heads.
'We can quite simply move the reality of the roads into our crash laboratory,' said Stefan Nilsson, director of the safety center.
Now that Ford has bought Volvo Car, the center will play a larger role in Ford's plans. Jac Nasser, Ford Motor Co. president and CEO, told reporters here the Volvo safety center would also become the Ford Motor Co. center of excellence in safety.
That means more than just Volvos will be getting their bumpers crushed here. Aston Martins, Fords, Jaguars, Lincolns, Mercurys and maybe Land Rovers could all be tested in the interests of safety. 'Volvo will serve as the greenhouse for safety research,' Nasser said.
The test track building, one of several structures that constitute this research complex, has a science fiction quality to it. Hewn out of a rocky hillside, one whole wing of the safety center can be moved 90 degrees to simulate anything from a side impact crash to a head-on collision.
The moveable portion of the building, weighing 600 tons, pivots on a cushion of air.
There is more technology here than just the moveable building. There is a massive 850-ton, four-meter-high moveable barrier that allows offset impacts to be assessed via piezo-electric sensors that can measure around corners. The barrier was made large enough to withstand impacts of trucks and commercial vehicles at high speeds.
Volvo also has a crash simulator that duplicates the 'crash pulse' by launching a reinforced car body into motion on a 30-ton sled as if it had been shot out of a cannon then bringing it suddenly to a halt. The system uses eight hydraulic accumulators that produce 320,000hp, the power of several 747 jets.
The simulator is valuable because Volvo can test the effects of various crashes on the interior of a car repeatedly without destroying vehicles. So, for example, Volvo can look at what happens to knees when they collide with the lower dashboard in a frontal collision.
The simulator was built using 5,000 tons of concrete in the foundation. The whole apparatus, including the iron rails on which the sledge is launched, is anchored into the ground by 11-meter bolts that go through the concrete.
The center also contains an NEC SX-4 supercomputer that can perform virtual crashes and break them down into as many as 300,000 individual pieces for analysis.