March 8, 2012 at 11:24 AM ET
By even the most conservative estimates airbags have saved thousands of lives since the auto industry began phasing them into widespread use two decades ago. And now, Volvo is betting it can also save pedestrian lives with the world’s first external airbag.
The new system is one of the many high-tech safety features being introduced on the Swedish maker’s new V40 wagon, which is itself making its world debut at this week’s Geneva Motor Show.
The 5-door features – as one might expect of Volvo – a wide range of advanced safety technology, and along with the new airbag system the V40 has Volvo’s Pedestrian Detection technology designed to prevent a collision in the first place.
The V40 itself is based on an all-new architecture that is intended to serve as the platform for a wide variety of upcoming Volvo products, including replacements for the current C30 coupe, S40 sedan and even the bigger V50 wagon.
The maker, which has long based its brand image on advanced safety has been working for several years to develop a pedestrian airbag – which it sees as the most effective way to meet Europe’s strict pedestrian impact legislation. Continental regulators have been pressing automakers to find ways to reduce the results of car-pedestrian collisions which routinely result in about a quarter or more of motor vehicle fatalities.
Other makers have come up with a variety of solutions, mostly passive. Typically, that has resulted in modest vehicle design changes to allow the hood of a vehicle to crumple slightly to soften the blow when a pedestrian is hit and lands atop the car. Other makers have explored the idea of using small pyrotechnic igniters to actually raise the hood after an impact to further cushion the blow.
But with the Volvo system sensors rapidly detect a car-pedestrian impact and respond much like what happens in a car-to-car collision. That triggers the section of the hood closest to the windshield to pop up slightly, a U-shaped airbag emerging from underneath, and forming a cushion around the base and sides of the windshield and A-pillars.
Along with the pedestrian-related technology the new V40 also includes Volvo’s City Safety system, which can activate the V40’s brakes if it sensors detect a low-speed collision with another vehicle is likely. The system is designed to step in if the driver is distracted. But the technology purposely applies the brakes rather abruptly to prevent a driver from simply using City Safety to keep them out of trouble while they text or otherwise ignore driving duties.
In keeping with other recent Volvo products, the maker has been trying to show that a safe vehicle doesn’t have to be a boring one. The wagon is a curvaceously styled alternative to the classic boxy Volvo of decades past.
The overall design emphasized a lower center of gravity to improve handling, meanwhile, and such functional features as rear monotube shocks improve handling, especially under aggressive driving.
At 177.2 inches. nose-to-tail, the V50 is about an inch longer than the current S40 and about eight inches longer than the current Audi A3 Sportback.
Several versions of the Volvo 1.6-liter turbo I-4 are likely to be offered for the V40, along with a 2.0-liter turbodiesel.