Crash tests are spectacular affairs. Volvo has just marked the tenth anniversary of its crash-test laboratory by performing three sorts of impact tests before a hundred journalists. All the computer simulations in the world can’t prove what happens in real life crashes but it is just as well that the science of testing has improved. Mercedes-Benz has been doing them since the 1930s. I went to one, it must have been about 1970 because it was a Chrysler 180, a slightly lugubrious car designed in Coventry as a big Humber but made in France. They had a crash test facility, on a sort of coal tip near Paris, in which they sped a car on a kind of chain drive affair, into a concrete block. It all went wrong. The roof crumpled, the doors flew open, the windscreen fell out and the passenger compartment was crushed; it was just as well nobody was inside because they’d have been killed. The press officer who’d invited us was aghast, tried to explain that there had been a miscalculation over the impact speed.
No chance of that with Volvo. They have done 3000 crash tests and say: “The degree of precision in a test in which two moving cars collide at 31 mph is 2.5 centimetres. This corresponds to two thousandths of a second. By way of comparison, a blink of the human eye takes about 60 thousandths of a second.” A concrete slab is used for tests including rollovers and avoidance or mitigation of a crash. The crash block weighs 850 tonnes and is moved around on air cushions. Volvo has a team of 100 crash-test dummies: men, women and children-shaped, of different sizes and ages with advanced measuring instruments configured for different crashes. In 2001 Volvo was made a centre of excellence by proprietors Ford, crash-testing Aston Martins, Jaguars, Land Rovers and Ford as well as Volvo cars and trucks.