Why go slow when potential EV buyers are impatiently waiting? Because the prospect of a single well-publicized fatal accident in an electric car or plug-in hybrid could derail the entire movement toward vehicle electrification. All the major car companies producing plug-in cars are concerned about such an event—but in keeping with Volvo’s reputation for safety—the company is testing its plug-in prototypes perhaps harder and longer than anybody in the industry.
This conservative approach is apparent in the Volvo C30 EV, the all-electric four-seat concept sedan unveiled at the 2010 Detroit auto show. At first glance, the stats may seem unimpressive: a range of about 90 miles, acceleration from 0-60 mph in 11 seconds, a top speed of about 80 miles per hour, and a leisurely eight hours to recharge the 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack from 220-volt household outlet.
Volvo could push these numbers further or race to bring the car to market faster, but it isn’t. Instead, the company is slowing down and chilling out—and making sure that customers’ expectations are met. It’s not promising rapid charging, game-changing driving range, or head-turning speed. And you won’t see a plug-in Volvo on the road this year, next year, or maybe not the year after. Instead, the company will build and test 50 electric C30s in Europe—to make sure they stand up against the test of time and in every possible crash scenario.
“In order to reduce the effects of a collision, the battery is well protected and separated from the car’s crumple zones. The battery is also sturdily encapsulated. Steel beams and other parts of the structure around the battery are reinforced to help protect it from being affected in a collision. If the battery is damaged, resulting in gas leakage, there are special evacuation ducts that lead the gas out under the car. In the event of extreme heat, the occupants are shielded by the battery’s encapsulation. At the very moment of impact, crash sensors linked to the battery send information about the collision to the car’s computer, which automatically shuts off the power supply to prevent the risk of a short-circuit.”
The C30 has 600 pounds of lithium ion batteries to package. Half of them will go in the space where the C30’s gas tank usually is placed (safely placed in front of the rear axle), and the other half are placed in the middle tunnel area. Those batteries don’t fit in a conventional C30. Moreover, some batteries can withstand being crushed and other can’t, while some batteries can be crushed safely from one angle but not another. Therefore, the lion’s share of Volvo’s work on electric cars and plug-in hybrids is focusing on completely new safer and aerodynamic platforms to accommodate the batteries and related electric technology.
As a result, the models currently being used by Volvo for testing plug-in cars—the C30 and the Volvo V70 plugin hybrid—are not likely to be the exact models emerging in European or US markets. But there’s every indication that Volvo is extremely serious about electric cars and plug-in hybrids, and they are on the way. Slowly and surely.