I get sucked up into the appeal of powerful and fast cars just as much as the next person does, but at the end of the day, a car’s safety is just as much a priority to me as its performance. We make the “rolling coffin” jokes about cars from previous decades and laugh because they are no longer our reality. Companies like Volvo and people like Malin Ekholm are devoted to keeping us safe when we drive.
If I look through a list of options for a car, I usually see engine options for increased performance, trim levels that include aesthetic details, interior picks and fancy speakers or satellite navigation systems. I don’t usually see options for upgraded safety features, however. And that’s a good thing. Safer options shouldn’t come at a premium.
Volvo’s practically synonymous with vehicle safety, having pioneered three-point seat belts, side-impact airbags and blind spot detection systems, just to name a few. For decades now the Swedish automaker has been working to make cars safer than anyone else, and in some cases even safer than regulations require. These days those efforts are headed up by Malin Ekholm.
As Volvo’s Vice President of Safety, Malin absolutely believes that making a safe car is the key to making a good car. She’s spent the last 18 years committed to building better and smarter cars that people can feel secure in driving. She called me from Sweden to tell me a little more about how she does it.
(Note: this conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow purposes.)
Kristen: How would you describe your role at Volvo?
Malin: I am the Vice President of Volvo Cars Safety Center. My job is focused around research… I think I could summarize it as the “circle of life.”
We have both the in-depth database at Volvo, which was started in the ‘70s and we have the Accident Research Team in my organization. They’re the ones actually traveling to accidents. They’re on call 24/7 and if there’s an accident involving a Volvo car within approximately a one-hour drive from Gothenburg, the police and the fire department have the phone numbers of my team and can call them to do an in-depth analysis of the accident. Not in the critical phase, but after the first critical phase has been taken care of, to understand what happened to the car, what the weather was like, the road friction and the other cars.
If we get the permission from the people involved in the accident, we actually have a doctor translating the medical journals so we have the possibility of understanding the severity of the injury. All, of course, coded and depersonalized. That’s where it starts.
From there we move to my team, working with the statistics. We have our own database in Sweden, but we also have the global database because we need the global accident picture. We need to understand what scenarios are putting people in danger. Combining data from the two bases helps us to better understand the situation.
Then, we need to understand and research. Do we have the knowledge? Do we have the technology solutions? There’s a lot of research going on, from a biomechanical perspective, to behavioral and everything in between.
We move on into the conceptual phase of vehicle with the engineering unit, looking at technical solutions that can be industrialized and put in our cars. Then we look at virtual and physical crash simulations. Finally, the cars go into production and we go out in the field again. That’s the circle.
Kristen: It’s kind of unfortunate that it sounds like you need to learn from bad situations to make the cars better, but that’s just how experience works, I guess.
Malin: That’s one part of it, but now with the simulation tools being so strong, we can actually use the computer and the science to extrapolate and understand. We also have the statistical methods to learn the potentials of a particular safety function. We can do a proactive analysis of how well it will perform. Yes, of course, one part of learning is history. But the other part of learning is extrapolating from history to not even going into particular situations. We do both.
Kristen: Obviously, Volvo has a reputation of being one of the safest cars you can buy. What have you done to help Volvo achieve this?
Malin: For one, we have the safety cage design, but we also looked at the injury mechanism—spinal injuries in particular. We saw that quite a lot of force was protruded through the car into the spine of the person sitting in the driver’s seat or in the front passenger seat. We asked, can we do something with the seat structure to absorb some of this energy? So, standard in all Volvo vehicles, starting with the XC90, there is a crumple zone integrated in the seat which actually absorbs the top of the force levels to reduce the force that needs to be absorbed by your spine, because what happens when the car runs off road is that the chassis is in complete bounce, so there is no springiness left.
Kristen: How are you addressing autonomous driving?
Malin: It’s very important for us that it is clear to you, as a driver, that you are in charge of the car. That means that we will support and assist, but we will never take over because we don’t want to put you in a situation where you are potentially confused as to who is in charge.
When we go into autonomy, it will be the car taking responsibility. Until that time, you as a driver are responsible.
There are a lot of challenges. One is developing the technology. Another is the human factor. How do you make sure that you feel safe and confident when someone else is driving the car? And making sure that everything is done for you as a person? Protecting what’s important to you is very, very important to us.
Kristen: What is the craziest crash test you’ve ever conducted?
Malin: I’m actually sitting in our fantastic crash facility right now. It’s built to do the basic crash testing, but also designed for us to be able to do research. We have one of the tubes that is actually movable. You can do crash tests in different angles by turning the tube around and shooting the cars out.
On the outside we have different actual situations, one of which is a ditch. So when you see the run off road video, you will actually see the XC90 being shot out of the tube into a ditch, which is outside one of the angles of this tube. In another area, there’s a rock or a structure, which is natural, but that moves around.
We also use the crash lab if there is a specific crash that, for some reason, we would like to know more about. We can do a reconstruction of the crash in the lab, which happens once or twice every year, to get more data from the crash dummies. You can put a lot of sensors in a car in the crash lab that you don’t have in the field.
Our computers are a huge resource because it’s possible to do a lot more in a shorter period of time. Also, you can add a robustness: you can adjust the speed, angle and the size of the occupants. Just as a reference, for the new XC60, we did approximately 30,000 computer simulations and we crashed approximately 60 cars.
The physical crash is no less important, but we can work a lot with the computer to make sure we have a really strong product before we start the physical testing.
Kristen: What got you into cars and Volvo?
Malin: I love the beauty of cars and I like the freedom they give. In the fall of 1998, I saw the new S80 in Gothenburg and it was just beautiful. I decided I need to work there and I had the opportunity of starting in brake engineering. I am a mechanical engineer. I didn’t study automotive engineering in school, but I’m fascinated by cars. The safety, of course, is really close to who I am, the value of the company and what it stands for.
Kristen: What is the engineering landscape like in Sweden? As I’m sure you’re aware, here in America, there aren’t as many women in engineering as there are men. Is that the case in Sweden?
Malin: Well, I’m speculating here, but it’s getting better. I would love to have more women in engineering. I don’t know why people shy away from it, to be honest, because it’s really, really fascinating. There are so many different possibilities in engineering. You could could specialize in anything.
On my management team, I have a woman who’s currently a professor in biomechanics. She’s an expert on the human body. I also have another person on my management team who is a behavioral scientist. There are so many different angles and aspects to engineering. I think sometimes we think of engineering as being a bit… steel and metal, but it really is about being curious and understanding and wanting to solve problems.
Kristen: Do you have any advice for people studying at university, especially women, on what they could do to maybe one day do what you do? Not even safety engineering specifically, just engineering in general at a big car company?
Malin: I would say that being curious about how things work and being curious about people around you is something that’s very strong with me. I have a very strong drive to be better and know more and contribute more. Then finding something you’re passionate about.
It never mattered to me what part of the car I worked on because I always felt that I was adding something to the product. Not being intimidated by the details, but understanding that the detail is a part of a bigger picture and keeping that perspective on everything.
I think it’s important to have more women because women are quite often the people who use our cars. They drive our cars. And that’s what makes understanding the product from different perspectives important.