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Life’s invisible luxury

Volvo Cars’ Interior Air Quality Testing Team are trained to keep a watchful eye out for the things we can’t see in the air around us. It’s thanks to them that stepping into your Volvo always feels like a breath of fresh air.

KENNETH ANDERSON

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Integrating the elements

Take a moment and picture the elements that make up the interior of your Volvo. What do you see? Seats, dashboard, floor mats, cup holders, glove compartment, buttons – the list is pretty extensive. Each of these individual elements have been specifically designed to integrate and work together for your benefit. But what about the materials they’re made from – who is responsible for ensuring they work together and that they benefit you? The answer is people like Annelie Synnerdahl and Hanna Sundqvist.

Annelie and Hanna have been working as Analysis Engineers at Volvo Cars for a combined total of 47 years. So it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about the inner workings of the air in your Volvo. Together, they are responsible for analysing interior materials in Volvo cars to make sure they are – and remain – free from harmful emissions and odours. But how do they do this and what does a normal day look like for them as they try to create the cleanest in-car environment possible?

"We have so many different test activities going on all the time that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal day’,” says Annelie.
When it comes to testing, both Annelie and Hanna are involved every step of the way – from the earliest development stages through to the moment a car is certified ‘clean’ and ready to go out on the road.

“We test everything,” explains Hanna, “From tiny fragments and small parts like cup holders, seals or buttons to larger, more complex parts such as consoles and floor mats. We also carry out complete car testing in sun simulation test cells and, occasionally, out on the road.” But regardless of the nature of the testing, their work is only done when they are fully satisfied that the air in the cabin is clean.

“After a while you learn to recognise the smell of certain materials like rubber and leather – you even begin to recognise the smell of certain chemicals!”

Hanna Sundqvist

Volvo Cars’ Interior Air Quality Testing Team

Where science meets the senses

To help them test for harmful substances, Annelie and Hanna combine their own expert knowledge and highly developed sense of smell with the analysis equipment in the lab. “When we test floor mats, for example, we place the entire mat in an emission chamber and heat it to a temperature of 65°C,” explains Hanna. Emission chambers are used in their work to detect and determine the concentration of unwanted substances in materials. “After a set amount of time, we take a sample of air from the chamber. If any volatile substances are detected, they are collected and taken to the chemical laboratory for further testing.” It’s an intricate, on-going process that demands a lot of patience and a keen attention to detail.

But what exactly are Annelie and Hanna looking for and how do they differentiate the hazardous from the harmless? “Some substances are known to be particularly hazardous. So, obviously, we don’t want any traces of these in our cars at all,” says Hanna. “Others substances are relatively harmless, but they can still cause headaches or dizziness if people are exposed to high concentrations over time. This is why we make sure the concentration levels are always well below any requirements.” Keeping up-to-date with the latest rules and regulations regarding emission levels – both worldwide standards and Volvo Cars’ own strict requirements – is another important part of the job.

Improving the view

When it comes to driving safely, one of the most important things your Volvo can give you is a clear view of the car’s surroundings and, especially, the road ahead. This is something Annelie and Hanna keep in mind in their testing. So, to help ensure your view from your Volvo remains unobstructed, they carry out extensive testing for what they call “fogging”.

“Fogging is where certain materials in the car’s interior react with heat – primarily sunshine – and give off substances that form condensation on the windows,” explains Annelie. But while fogging can lead to reduced visibility, it can also indicate other hidden dangers. “Fogging on the windscreen is also a sign that there are substances in the air that might not be very healthy to breathe,” explains Annelie. “There are actually some commonly used phthalates (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, durability and longevity) that are very unhealthy. These phthalates are not allowed to be used in Volvo components.”

AKA the Smell Team

As well as detecting harmful substances, Annelie and Hanna are also experts at identifying unpleasant or unnecessary odours. And it’s their expertise in this area that has earned them the affectionate nickname of the Smell Team. “After a while you learn to recognise the smell of certain materials like carpets, rubber and leather – you even begin to recognise the smell of certain chemicals!” says Hanna.

The presence of a smell, however, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a health risk. “Some strong smelling substances are harmless, while some extremely poisonous substances are completely odourless,” explains Annelie. “If a material does smell badly, it’s interesting to try and discover which substance is causing the odour.” But who decides if a smell is good or bad? “Smell is subjective,” says Hanna. “Therefore, some odour is acceptable. However, it should never distract the driver or have a negative effect on the overall driving experience.”

We often hear how different smells can alter our mood and affect the way we perceive things. As experts, what are Annelie and Hanna’s thoughts on this? “I’m totally convinced that odour strongly influences your wellbeing wherever you are - not just inside a car,” says Annelie. “Associations, expectations, even your mood on a particular day can be influenced by a certain smell. This is why it is so important that the quality of the air inside matches the overall quality of our cars.”

Fixing the problem

As you can imagine when working with such an important and sensitive area, the levels of quality control adhered to by the Interior Air Quality Testing Team are very high indeed. So what happens when a product doesn’t match up to Volvo Cars’ strict requirements? “Sometimes it’s possible to change materials or the manufacturing process to help lower the emissions, but sometimes you have to completely change the design solution. Then, the testing begins all over again.”

It may sound like a lot of hard work but both Annalie and Hanna agree it’s rewarding work – especially when their input influences a concept or helps guide a project in an exciting new direction.

Another car passes the test.

What does the future hold?

As pollution levels rise across the globe, the work carried out by experts like Volvo Cars’ Interior Air Quality Team is only going to become more important and their knowledge more valuable. So what do they think the future holds when it comes to the air quality in our cars?

“We believe we’ll see more recycled and low-weight materials. Our focus, however, is ensuring only the best materials are used in the interior of Volvo cars."

So the next time you step into your car, take a moment, take a deep breath and enjoy one of life’s invisible luxuries – clean, fresh air.

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