DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co.’s top safety engineer says the auto maker won’t miss a beat when it comes to developing cutting-edge safety technologies after it parts ways with its Volvo Car Corp. division.

“As much as I like my Volvo colleagues, Ford will be just as strong without them,” Steve Kozak, global chief engineer for safety systems, says at a safety demonstration here. “I don’t believe we’ll lose anything.”

Ford, which last year announced it was placing Volvo under strategic review and now is seeking buyers for the Swedish brand, developed much of its current safety systems independent of Volvo, Kozak says.

“Things like rollover curtain airbags, roll stability control, even these new radar systems we’re putting on the vehicles, were Ford developments,” he says, noting Volvo did play a role in the development of a number of other safety technologies.

Ford and Volvo have been working together since 1999, Kozak says, “so it’s almost seamless between us. I’m upset to see friends go that I’ve been working with for so many years, but it’s part of the business. Ford is ready for the challenge to continue to bring the highest level of safety to our vehicles.”

Ford says it holds more “Top Safety Pick” ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety than any other auto maker and more National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. 5-star ratings than any other brand.

The auto maker wants to cement its position as a leader in automotive safety after the departure of Volvo and reveals here tests used to develop safety systems it says go beyond the industry norm.

The main goal is to determine when to deploy airbags. The tests provide thousands of sensor readings during certain impacts that help calibrate the sensitivity of new airbag pressure sensors introduced on the ’09 Ford F-150 pickup and ’10 Taurus. Ford eventually will use the sensors on all of its models.

One such test mimics a common parking lot occurrence, where a shopping cart slams into the side of an idle vehicle.

In the test, a robot pushes a shopping cart containing a 110-lb. (50 kg) weight into the vehicle door at 10 mph (16 km/h). Pressure-based sensors inside the door measure the severity of the impact and determine whether it’s a life-threatening, airbag-deployable crash.

The sensors allow for the systems to determine the severity of a crash more accurately than traditional acceleration-based sensors, Kozak says.

“We’re using a sensor that (detects) the pressure wave inside the door when it’s impacted, very much like a subwoofer in your home stereo,” he says. “That replaces an accelerometer that was mounted closer to the occupant at the base of the B-pillar.

“I can do a much better job of discriminating the impact with the pressure sensor than with an accelerometer,” Kozak adds, noting Ford also tested the system using softballs and a crash dummy on a bicycle. “It works faster and is more effective in removing the events that could cause an inadvertent deployment.”

In another test, Ford engineers use a multi-tailed, lead-tipped steel whip to repeatedly lash portions of the undercarriage where side impact airbag sensors are located. The data is used to refine sensor calibrations.

Vehicles traveling at high speeds over obstacles often cause unnecessary airbag deployment, as well.

Ford says this can occur when a driver is distracted. As such, engineers routinely propel all kinds of vehicles over parking blocks at the auto maker’s proving ground here at 55 mph (89 km/h) to ensure there is not a deployment.

Perhaps the most innovative test involves a water cannon attached to the rear of a Volvo V70 wagon.

The test is not designed to measure airbag sensitivity. Rather, it’s to help engineers understand the physics involved in a side-impact crash, which often results in a second collision with another vehicle.

During the test, a vehicle is driven at about 55 mph in a large arc, meant to simulate a freeway on/off ramp. At the apex, the cannon is discharged, simulating a side collision by forcing the rear end of the vehicle to swing out.

Jeffrey Rupp, manager-active safety research and engineering, says the data collected from the test already has yielded valuable information.

“The question that came up is, ‘What happens between the first crash and second crash, and what can we do to help the driver avoid the (second) accident?’” he says. “So if (the driver is) hit by another car, they might lose control, start to roll over, go off the road or head for a tree. We can help them avoid that.” Rupp says data gleaned from the tests likely will be used to create new algorithms for the electronic-stability control and brake-control units.

bpope@wardsauto.com