Learning from your mistakes: Volvo uses truck crash intel to refine safety

Cannon Mug Headshot
Updated Apr 10, 2024

Any time a Volvo truck is involved in an accident, its an opportunity to learn how well safety systems and design approaches are helping the company move closer to its Zero Accidents goal. 

There were 716 fewer people killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes on U.S. roadways during 2022, a 1.7% decrease from 43,230 in 2021 to 42,514 in 2022, according to the latest figures reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While any measurable decrease is good, anything more than zero is an "unacceptable number," Volvo Traffic and Product Safety Director Anna Wrige Berling, adding the goal of zero accidents drives all system development for the company's trucks.

"It's first about zero fatalities," she said, "then its zero injuries, [and] in the end we hope to have zero accidents."

Volvo has deployed numerous tactics in its quest to stamp out vehicle crashes, including awareness programs and driver training, but "most of the work," she said, is the work done to the trucks themselves. 

Established in 1969, an accident research team visits crash sites involving Volvo trucks and has analyzed accident statistics and investigated more than 1,700 truck crashes. The team consists of an operational group, a traffic safety statistics group and a group that develops new methods to evaluate future and current safety measures. The group also conducts internal research projects, establishes external partner collaborations and analyzes external statistics and reports. The collective findings gives Volvo Trucks new perspectives on the cause and effect of traffic accidents.

What the team does not do, however, is assign blame. The Volvo team is there for data collection. 

"We don't focus so much on who was at fault," she said, adding their focus is on how the truck behaved in the accident and any injuries involved. 

The number of people killed in traffic crashes involving large trucks, according to NHTSA, increased by 2% from 2021 to 2022, 

"If you can get to the site before the truck is removed, that is the best thing," she said, noting that visuals like tire tracks and airbag deployments help Volvo safety teams determine how effective the truck's safety systems were in preventing injuries and how they could be refined to prevent the accident entirely. 

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

"If drivers crash with our trucks, there's something for us to do," said Volvo Lead Engineer Emma Johansson.

Volvo has also focused attention on educating children on how to be safe around heavy trucks through two safety programs: Stop, Look, Wave (targeting grade school children) and See & Be Seen (focused on teens) and each feature free training resources. About 200,000 children have been reached across the programs in more than 30 countries around the world. 

“We’re not putting the responsibility on the child, the pedestrians or the cyclist to avoid accidents,” said Sustainability Communication Manager Sara Kuylenstierna. “The responsibility is on us as a manufacturer and the driver.”

Volvo cabs are some of the safest in the world, having exceeded safety standards in North America, Europe and Sweden. Volvo tests its cab strength against the toughest standards on the globe, regardless of which continent they're located. 

Only 10% to 15% of the people killed in heavy truck accidents in Europe are in the truck. Passenger cars make up the majority (55% to 65%), with the balance being vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists.

Screenshot 2024 04 09 At 11 24 08 AmVolvo Trucks

Each accident is unique but Wrige Berling said most fall into one of just a few types: collision with oncoming car; intersection accident with a car; crossing pedestrian; turning accident with cyclist; lane departure accidents; and colliding with the rear of another truck.

Upwards of 93% of truck-involved crashes are attributed to human error, so Volvo has used the data collected by its investigation team to deploy technologies that support the driver in crash prevention. 

While much of this work initially takes place locally to Volvo Trucks' Gothenburg, Sweden headquarters, the fruits of that labor have clearly influenced North American trucks.

Technology solutions 

A variety of new and improved proprietary active and passive safety features are included on the new VNL Volvo Trucks North America debuted earlier this year, including Volvo Active Driver Assist Plus with Pilot Assist, which provides active lane centering. Volvo Active Driver Assist Plus is powered by Volvo Dynamic Steering, which improves maneuvering at all speeds with more controlled backing and increased stability at all road speeds, and it adapts and corrects for crosswinds, highway crowning, soft shoulders and emergency situations like tire failure. The new pedestrian detection feature alerts the driver when a pedestrian or bicyclist may be in their path or blind spots and will activate frontal automatic emergency braking for objects directly in the path of travel.

Project Manager Gustav Neander said Volvo's current third-generation Automated Driver Assist System (ADAS) consists of five radar systems, one camera and one ECU – a package that enables 13 customer functions.

Passive safety systems offered in the new Volvo VNL include the new windshield and its panoramic view, improving visibility for drivers, bolstering safety and reducing wind noise in the cab. The cab of the new Volvo VNL is designed according to Volvo Trucks’ leading crash test standards and offer a side-curtain airbag with options for driver-only or driver and passenger airbags  a North American industry first. Cabs are constructed of high-strength steel to deflect the energy of a crash to reduce the chance of injury. Additionally, Volvo Trucks’ splayed frame rails allow the powertrain to drop down below the cab to protect the driver in the event of a head-on collision.

Neander added that the goal of these layers of technologies is to help keep the driver more alert because, "exhausted drivers are like drunk drivers," he said. 

"A healthy and relaxed driver is very important to have safety on the road," added Jan-Inge Svensson, Volvo Trucks technology specialist.

While it might not be obvious, he said Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS) is a key safety enabler because it mitigates road input from traveling into the steering wheel, improves steering wheel return and makes steering lighter, leading to less driver fatigue. Maybe more obvious, Svensson said, is how VDS supports the driver in the event of a steer tire blowout, for example, increasing the chances the driver can keep the truck on the road in the event of a tire failure. 

As the VNL debuts its new 24-volt electrical system, Svensson said it enables further assist VDS controls like stability assist, lane keep assist and personal settings. 

Rearview camera monitoring systems (CMS) – an emerging technology in both U.S. and European Volvo Truck models  is generally viewed as an aerodynamic improvement, but Wrige Berling said it also improves safety by boosting direct visibility ahead because the system removes the mirrors from the A-pillar. Reduced glare, less mirror soiling, and improved nighttime visibility, Wrige Berling said, are among the indirect visibility benefits. And, unlike mirrors, the CMS can zoom in and out and pan left and right, allowing the driver to get a better field of view without moving their head.

Many of the new technolgies being rolled out on the new VNL aren't necessarily new, having been used in Europe for many years, and having them finally arrive stateside fulfills a dream of Volvo's experts. Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Group executive vice president of Trucks Technology noted that the approach all Volvo engineers take in developing and implementing technologies and innovations is that they want their ideas and projects to be deployed around the world through all Volvo's companies. 

What about electric safety?

Volvo ARVolvo has deployed searchable app-based schematic of their electric trucks to rescue personnel so they will know where the batteries are and can safely strategize response to emergencies that involve a battery electric truck and how to immobilize and disable hazards. Shown here, the orange underlay shows first responders where the electric components are without them having to touch the truck.

The company's commitment to safety testing extends to its electric models, subjecting them to rollover tests and rigorous side impact collision tests to ensure the batteries can handle violent collisions. 

"It's more about making sure the batteries are taken care of," Wrige Berling said, adding that if the air bags deploy, the 600-volt electrical system immediately shuts off. "We know that after an accident, it's better that the 600-volt system is off for when the rescue services get there."

Because electric models will become more common in the years ahead – and because "battery fires can be tricky" – she said Volvo provides searchable app-based schematics of their electric trucks to rescue personnel so they will know where the batteries are and can safely strategize response to emergencies that involve a battery electric truck and how to immobilize and disable hazards. 

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]