How to make a smaller Volvo as safe as a big one

With the EX30, Volvo wants to improve on the safety record of its XC90, in which no drivers or passengers are known to have been killed

Crash tests on Volvo XC90

Volvo is prepping its newest model, the compact EX30, and Volvo being Volvo, the Swedish firm is putting safety right at the top of the new car’s agenda. That’s tricky, though – not only is the new EX30 one of the most compact cars that Volvo has ever made, it’s also sharing a platform with other brands, notably Smart and Geely.

How can you make a small Volvo, one that has to share its components with other models at an economically viable level, just as safe as the bigger ones? It’s a long-held dilemma.

For instance, back in the 1980s, Volvo’s now-defunct national rival, Saab, was making cars in concert with Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia. When it came to Saab’s own model, made from the same set of components, the Swedes decided that the Italian cars simply weren’t strong enough and promptly added thousands of Kroner worth of extra metal and crash protection, essentially wiping out the car’s profit margin.

Volvo can’t afford to do that, but by starting from first principles, it wants to try to build into the EX30 the same safety levels that you’d find in the much bigger EX90 electric seven-seat SUV.


“Volvo cars is of course always trying to be pioneering in safety, and always trying to advance in safety ever since we started,” says Åsa Haglund, head of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre. “This small SUV it has all the protective safety that you’d expect in a Volvo car.”

Thomas Broberg, Senior Technical Advisor Safety, Volvo Cars Safety Centre

That’s a lot of expectation. Just before sitting down for the interview, I’d been driving a new Volvo XC90 T8 hybrid, and whatever you might think about how other road users perceive a large two-tonne SUV, from inside there was a remarkable sense of calm assurance that no harm was going to come to me, nor anyone else in the car.

That’s not a mere feeling, either. Volvo’s XC90, ever since the first model was introduced in 2003, has set a remarkable record – as far as can be ascertained, no one who’s been driving one, or riding as a passenger, has been killed in a crash.

So, if way back in 2003, we could make a car in which no one would die, haven’t we already scaled the ultimate summit of vehicular safety? Well, not according to Haglund: “Safety is a moving target, somewhat. For us it’s not enough to have zero deaths in the XC90. We’re very proud of that, it’s tremendously good, but we also want to have no accidents with other road users. We want no one killed in the other cars, or the vulnerable road users. And you can even bring it further. We want to not have accidents at all. Not even the scratchy, small, tiny things because then you have to repair the car, and then you have to make new parts, and then all of a sudden it’s less environmentally sustainable. Better to avoid the accident altogether.”

To try to push that safety agenda forward, the EX30 will be getting some new technology. Although the basic platform is shared with both Chinese brand Geely (which owns Volvo) and Smart (a joint venture brand between Mercedes and Geely), the smallest Volvo has been put through the safety wringer. Structurally, the roof and the pillars that support it have been beefed up, and there’s an extra airbag on the inside of the front seats, to offer better protection in a side impact.

The EX30 will only be available as an electric model, and Volvo is cognisant that there are concerns over battery safety, so it’s fitting a battery safety cage made of high-strength steel to try to protect from any impact.

Software is also playing a big part, in both big and supposedly small roles. The big role is an expansion of the active emergency steering and braking systems, which in the EX30 will be able to detect if, when negotiating a junction, another car turns across your path. Previously the system could only stop you doing that. Now it will help you avoid being part of someone else’s crash.

Volvo EX30

The other new trick is an alert that warns you not to open your door if the car detects a cyclist whizzing along in your blind spot. While there are non-software ways of achieving this (in the Netherlands, drivers are taught to open a door with their opposite hand, reaching across and naturally turning their head to check out of the side windows) the Volvo set-up of flashing lights and a warning sound may well save lives – according to Cycling UK, 60 people on average are killed or seriously injured by car doors each year in the UK alone.

Does all that software and tech come with a price? We’ve seen just this week that Volvo’s new range-topping car, the EX90, is being delayed because its software isn’t ready – it now won’t arrive in Ireland until the first half of 2024, having been expected here by the end of this year. While the EX30 has, apparently, not been delayed by the same issues, does the proliferation of software, and the increasing reliance on it, rather than sheer physical protection, raise its own issues?

“Historically, this has always been complex,” says Thomas Broberg, Volvo’s senior technical adviser for safety. “First of all you need to understand what you need to achieve, and then you need to have the technology on board to allow you to do that. That’s engineering. That’s why there are thousands of us here working on it. Where we see the big enablers are really in how we can utilise software in order to make more use of the hardware we have in the car.

“If you compare the power that you have in computing and what we do with software today, to just 10 years ago, it’s amazing. And that will continue, and of course the engineering challenges will be there as well, with everything from expanding computing power to having the right physical prerequisites to make it work, but that’s engineering and that’s why we’re here.”

That is the next, biggest step in safety technology – getting the human being to play ball

Volvo hasn’t revealed the technical specification of the EX30 yet – that will happen on June 7th – but we can look to the already-on-sale (albeit not in Ireland yet) Smart #1 for how it will perform. The Smart has a 66kWh battery with a range of up to 435km, thanks to a 272hp electric motor driving the rear wheels. Expect the Volvo to have much the same range, unless you go for the much, much faster two-motor 428hp version.

For all the clever software, though, there remains one overriding fact. Volvo has probably saved more lives than any other car maker, thanks to the invention of the three-point seat belt in 1959, which Volvo didn’t patent, allowing other car companies to use the design.

Some estimates put the number of lives saved since then as high as 50 million, but seat belts only work if the person in the car uses them properly. That is the next, biggest step in safety technology – getting the human being to play ball.

As Broberg says: “Even though we’ve come very, very far, there are still some gaps to close. We need to focus on how we can assist drivers with the behavioural aspects of driving. We know that the big gaps are in relation to our distraction, intoxication and also speeding, and there is still more to do in that area.”