GOTHENBURG, Sweden - Volvo's reputation for safety technology is one of the Swedish automaker's core values.
But Volvo's designers grapple with how to continually remind owners of those safety attributes, in part to reaffirm why someone would pay a premium for a Volvo.
"One of our problems is that safety is not very visible or experienceable," says Peter Horbury, Volvo's former chief designer, who was promoted to executive director of design at Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group on May 28.
"With a BMW, there's a reminder where all the cash went every time you turn the key. With Mercedes-Benz, it's the sound the door makes when you close it. But for us, the only time a customer is aware of our safety is if they have the worst experience of their life. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is invisible."
Safety will be a key part of the marketing of the 2003 XC90, Volvo's newest and largest wagon that goes on sale in the United States in the fall. Volvo will tout the XC90 as a sport-utility. It also will emphasize technologies such as side curtain airbags, stability control and the use of ultra high-strength steel to provide extra protection. But none of those enhancements is readily apparent.Volvo has tried a number of times to create designs that say "safety." One of the first was the VESC safety concept in 1972. With its elongated bumpers, the car looked safe - but not very appealing or fun to drive.
"We learned that safety by mass doesn't work," Horbury says.
Designer Stefan Jansson revisited the VESC two years ago before starting work on the Safety Concept Car, which was unveiled at the 2001 Detroit auto show."I felt the VESC was too easy and boring," Jansson says. "I wanted to design a good car, as well as a safe car." The Safety Concept Car was an exploration of several ideas to increase safety and visibility for the driver and passengers. Its notable features include see-through A-pillars, four-point seat belts and B- pillars that curve inward to improve vision off to the sides. Another key element of the Safety Concept Car, Horbury says, was that Volvo designers and engineers worked jointly on the project, balancing safety and design requirements.
"Our designers start off knowing the expectations of our customers and the company," Horbury says. "They know they need to work within certain dimensions, such as the distance from the driver's foot to the front corner of the car is set and can't be changed.
Dale Jewett is Automotive News