Lifestyle

More than a feeling

When buying a car, you can never be 100% certain of how it'll feel once you’re out on the road. Or can you? Thanks to Volvo Cars Validation engineers like Peter Hellgren, you can be sure that your experience is just like it was intended to be.

The journey begins

It’s a crisp October morning and I’m standing outside the Volvo Cars factory in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo models of every shape, size and colour stretch out as far as the eye can see. It’s like visiting a town founded and inhabited solely by Volvo enthusiasts. I’m here to meet Peter Hellgren. Peter has been working as a validation engineer for Volvo Cars for over 20 years and today, I will be joining him and two of his colleagues on a validation expedition, where three new Volvo 90 series cars will be put through their paces. But before we set off, what exactly does a validation engineer do?

Validation is all about feeling,” explains Peter. “We analyse and test the car at every stage of the development process to make sure it feels the way it should. It’s all about meeting the customers’ expectations on an emotional level.” In short, Peter’s job is to test from prototypes to the factory model to ensure the car delivers everything the product description promises it should.

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We set off on our expedition

Peter and I lead the way in a brand new V90 while Thomas and Bengt, the other validation engineers taking part in today’s expedition, bring up the rear in two stunning new S90s. The reason for today’s trip is to give the three cars a final workout before they embark on a full-length expedition in two weeks’ time, where Peter, Thomas and Bengt will carry out their validation work all over Europe – from the sunny climes of southern France to the breathtaking heights of the Italian Alps. On today’s expedition, however, we are driving to Bohuslän, a province located on the northernmost part of Sweden’s west coast. Now, this may not sound as exotic as ascending the Alps or cruising down the Autobahn, but when it comes to validating a new car, every expedition has something to teach you.

A typical expedition consists of five cars driving in convoy, with the drivers using walkie-talkies to stay in contact and compare notes on how they feel the car is performing. Peter has taken part in expeditions all over the world and each expedition is designed to test how different aspects of a car behave in different climates, at different altitudes and in different surroundings. For example, how does it feel to steer the car in the searing summer heat of Marseille or how do the sub-zero temperatures of Northern Sweden affect the way windscreen wipers perform?

"These are the things our customers will experience when they buy the car, so we must experience them in the same way."

PETER HELLGREN

VALIDATION ENGINEER AT VOLVO CARS

Designing from the driver’s perspective

“When it comes to validation, we always assess the car subjectively,” explains Peter as we cruise smoothly up the E6 towards the town of Stenungsund. “But we never say ‘I think’, we always say ‘These are my findings and these are the reasons behind my findings.’ At the end of each day, we discuss our findings together and give each part of the car we have tested a mark out of ten. If a part of the car receives two very different marks, we discuss why that could be.” But who decides what kind of things Peter and his colleagues should look out for?

“The type of testing we carry out depends on the type of car Volvo want to develop,” says Peter. “We receive an order to develop a car with certain characteristics, e.g. dynamic steering. We then take that order and interpret it from a driver’s perspective to see if it sounds feasible.” Every order for a new Volvo car comes with different demands from different Volvo departments. So Peter and his team must work closely with each department to find the right balance of properties and ensure that the car works as a whole.

Finding the right combination

The Volvo Cars Validation Team is made up of 15 engineers, each with their own area of expertise. And according to Peter, it’s this combination of different competencies that is the key to good validation work. “It’s important that we are all different and that we can look at things from a different point of view. But there must be a good balance between the team members and we must have the right levels of experience and knowledge.”

As well as testing a car’s hardware, Peter and his team must also test the software. This can take time as there is more software in today’s cars than ever before. At Volvo Cars, there are test labs where the different types of software are run to make sure everything works. Here the validation engineers can also test how buttons function and how they feel to operate in real-life situations. So, it is a combination of the technical and the tactile.

Another important factor of Peter’s work is understanding how different cultures affect the way people drive and being able to validate a car from the perspective of that particular culture. For instance, when Peter has the task of validating a car intended for sale in China, he must do so from the perspective of a Chinese driver. In order to learn about different driving cultures, Peter has driven extensively all over the world – in China alone he has covered a staggering 50,000 miles in the past year or so. Out of interest, I ask him to describe the driving culture in Sweden: “In Sweden, we respect other road users and we respect the rules,” he answers with a smile.

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This is how it should feel

After driving for almost an hour, it’s time for us to change cars. So, we climb into the black S90 R-Design and swap the motorway for some small, winding country roads. In contrast to the motorway, these small Swedish country roads are clearly more difficult to handle, as evidenced by the sheer volume of tyre marks on the road in front of us. Of course, not everyone is as skilful a driver as Peter. And as he effortlessly negotiates the seemingly endless twists and turns, he moves the car through the gears and smiles. “This gearbox feels good,” he says. This is clearly a moment where all the hard work comes together and the car feels exactly as it is supposed to feel. “Do you know there’s a farmer up there who keeps camels?” says Peter pointing to a farmhouse on the hill. And with that unexpected piece of information, we leave the country roads, head back towards the motorway and continue on to Bohuslän.

"The rest of our expedition takes us into town centres, across farmland and finally into a beautifully picturesque fishing village called Hunnebostrand. Here Peter, Thomas and Bengt study the cars’ engines and discuss their findings for the trip so far. Then, after a brisk walk along the shore to take in the view and some fresh air, it’s time for our little Volvo convoy to set off for home. On the way back to the Volvo Cars factory, I ask Peter if he is always in validation mode or if can he switch it off at will. “No, I am always in validation mode,” he laughs. “You start to validate everything, from choosing a sofa to a new mobile phone.”

So, the next time you climb into your car and everything works and feels exactly the way you expect it to, remember, that’s no coincidence. Passionate people like Peter have worked tirelessly, in all kinds of conditions, to make sure your Volvo feels as good as a Volvo should.