A new safety testing facility is part of the plan to avoid crashes in the first place, rather than simply reducing vehicle occupants’ injury risk, explains Simon Harris.
Vehicle safety has been developed and debated from the earliest days of the motor car, but recent advances in technology have focused on preventing crashes rather than reducing the risk of injury.
An increasing number of features have been developed that allow sensors and computers to monitor risk on the road, alert the driver and intervene if necessary to prevent crashes or at least reduce the severity of the impact.
There have been significant advances in vehicle safety features even during the 18 years since Euro NCAP crash tests were launched in 1996.
Over the following decade or so, vehicle manufacturers were compelled to improve structural safety to increase their scores for occupant protection (and later pedestrian protection) in a crash. But more recently the focus has been on features such as electronic stability control and autonomous emergency braking.
Manufacturers and component suppliers are coming up with even more advances and trials are beginning where cars can drive themselves, maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front and keeping within lane markings.
Vehicle manufacturers can test safety features at their own sites, but those have been designed with engine and chassis testing in mind. A new facility in Europe has been purpose-built to evaluate car safety features with tracks and characteristics that mimic real-life scenarios.
AstaZero in Sweden was opened officially in August. The name Asta (active safety test area) and Zero are merged in the name to highlight the centre’s vision of eliminating traffic fatalities. Although Volvo Cars and Volvo Trucks have been partners in setting up the test area, it will serve as an open, international platform for all.
Launching around two years ahead of any rival facility, according to its bosses, this is where future safety technology in fleet vehicles is likely to be evaluated.
AstaZero’s total surface area amounts to about two million square metres with a paved surface of 250,000 square metres. Encircled by a 3.4-mile highway connected to a city area with four blocks, it also features a 240m-diameter circular high-speed area, with add-ons joined to a 700m- long multi-lane road. In-depth looks at these zones and a rural road zone follow later in the article.
Autonomous vehicle technology is very much at the forefront of what AstaZero will be used for.
Pether Wallin, chief executive of AstaZero, said: “Vehicles that act on their own initiative might sound like science fiction – however, a lot of technology has already been designed and developments are moving very rapidly. People cause accidents, not slipperiness or fog. If we eliminate the human factor, we can also eliminate the number of accidents.”
The rural road contains 10 different points, both open and concealed, where objects will appear in front of the vehicles. The area is specially designed for different tests of driver behaviour and is well suited for the use of hidden obstacles or those that appear suddenly. At the road, there will be two T-junctions and a crossroad with signage in the specified language and changeable to suit customer requirements. The rural road also has bus stops/lay-bys at two locations.
The city area will primarily be used to test a vehicle’s capacity to interact with the surrounding environment to avoid hitting buses, cyclists, pedestrians or other road users. It includes different sub-areas, such as a town centre with varying street widths and lanes, bus stops, pavements, bike lanes, street lighting and building backdrops. The city area also has a road system with test environments such as roundabouts, T-junction, return-loop and lab-area.
Four lanes connected to the high-speed area, with an acceleration road that is about 300m long and seven metres wide, with a turning loop for long vehicles. Several different scenarios can be tested, such as lane changes, different collision scenarios and crossing scenarios.
The high-speed area consists of two acceleration roads. Acceleration road one is around two-thirds of a mile long. In addition to the two acceleration roads, it is also possible to use the multilane road for acceleration, which means vehicles can enter the high-speed area from three different directions. In this area, focus will primarily be on vehicle dynamics like avoidance manoeuvres at very high speeds.