“In our striving for efficiency, have we lost empathy for the traveler?”
These words, from Volvo’s launch video for its new 360c fully autonomous concept car, hit home with me. I fly much of the time, so I’m fully familiar with efficient but unsympathetic forms of travel, and Volvo’s idea is to help people like me and you through the design of its future cars. The Volvo 360c is, like most concepts of our time, all-electric, fully autonomous, and covered by a big sweeping glass dome. What distinguishes it, though, is Volvo’s vision of how it fits into the broader scheme of city infrastructure, short-haul flights, working commutes, and environmental concerns.
In 2018, Volvo, opened up a broad discussion about the potential for autonomous driving technology to fundamentally change society.
‘The future is not something that just happens – it is something you create, it is about finding different modes of movement for different people’. Volvo Cars’ senior vice president, Marten Levenstam for product strategy talks passionately about the future. The Volvo 360c concept car we are about to see represents a grand vision. It is at once a self-driving office offering hot-desking on the move, as well as a social or business meeting hub with food and champagne, relaxing imagery and moody music. Or it can be a tranquil bedroom – on – wheels – upper-class air travel on land.
This car is “a conversation starter, with more ideas and answers to come as we learn more”, said Marten Levenstam. That leaves a lot of specifics yet to be determined, but Volvo does envision four basic usage scenarios for a car like its 360c. It can serve as a mobile bedroom, replacing red-eye flights with a smoother, calmer, quicker, and more environmentally friendly travel option. It can turn your work commute into a much more productive time, offering the connectivity and space of a mobile office. Or it can be your living room and entertainment space. A modular interior with relevant information projected onto the windows makes flexibility the overriding characteristic of the 360c’s functionality.
This latest research vehicle represents the final stage of autonomous cars when passengers begin moving around in zero-emission driverless connected vehicles, and as Volvo sees it, in complete safety. This is the carmaker who in 1959 invented the three-point seat belt and the marque remains human-centric (or person-centric) as it approach to product development and design. The 360c is fundamentally about researching the safety solutions that will be required when our cars no longer have a human pilot, or when they (the cars) need to speak to one another and to pedestrians. Volvo safety engineers are looking into new forms of seat belts for when we no longer are obliged to sit in stillness in rows of two or three looking at the road ahead, for when we have the freedom to move around our vehicles, sit in multiple ways, having conference meeting, recline and sleep.
The ideas presented today are not necessarily pioneering – BMW and Audi have been at the forefront of setting the initial scene for the autonomous future. What makes 360c especially exciting is how Volvo is using the concept as a channel for dialogue with other car companies, policy makers and government to help find real answers, safety solutions, and a universal language for autonomous driving communication.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the 360c has its gaze on airlines, for Volvo believes there is a viable business plan that could disrupt short distance air travel. In scenario three, the 360c operates as a single-person autonomous vehicle that can pick you up from your home or office, offer you food and drink that has been pre-ordered on your app, lets you recline and relax, watch a movie, sleep, wash up in the morning and be at your final destination with little of the stress of air travel. The company sees its idea, what it calls ‘road planes’, as something it could potentially sell or lease out to airlines. Experiencing the journey, albeit in virtual reality, suggest an interesting alternative to premium travel for distances that can be covered overnight.
In terms of design, the 360c does not attempt to be extraordinary. Instead the Gothenburg team led by Robin Page has focused on what happens inside this architectural bubble encased in a sweeping glass dome. That is not to say it doesn’t look fresh and futuristic. Page feels the design doesn’t sway too far from Volvo’s mainstream cars as it retains that Scandinavian cleanliness. His approach here though was more akin to product design. ‘The four-spec wheel design, typically difficult to do, works with the architectural feel of this car,’ he says.
The cabin is equally devoid of drama. The space has been left clean and clear, the colour codes neutral, for the three scenarios to unfold. Page explains how his team went for natural materials, mainly linen and wool mixes for the upholstery to conjure up the feeling of a living room, office and bedroom. There is also a fair degree of sustainable and recycled materials utilized here including float wood sourced from a nearby lake, treated to automotive standards and placed on the floor area. A special safety blanket has been envisaged to cocoon the passenger inside the sleeper hub. Still in development stage, it is likely to include restraining systems that sense the shape and size of the body to work in similar ways to the current three-point safety belt but with more flexibility.
Communication is also a key area in this concept. A dedicated team has been studying kinemics – body language codes, or how humans around the world interact with other road users. These are then mimicked through light, sound and motion which are transmitted through an LED belt that wraps around the car. Volvo feels there needs to be a universal standard for autonomous communication that is easily followed by all road users in all societies and adopted by all car companies.
Elsewhere, Volvo is exploring the idea of ‘disappearing technology’, keeping all the complex ‘techie’ parts tucked away out of sight. The message here is that Volvo will continue to be a human-centric marque; sister brand Polestar will make cars for those who are excited by extreme technology.
The 360c opens up a broad discussion about the potential for autonomous driving technology to fundamentally change society. ‘The idea is you select what you need on an app and a clean and personalized vehicle arrives at your door, picks you up, drops you off and then disappears,’ explains Page. ‘The office may be the only one you would want to have ownership of; the others will be more like a hotel room where you hand over your keys at the end of the day.’ This is luxury, according to Volvo.
This image of mobility in the next five to ten years is at once innovative and utopian. The marque is working on some more egalitarian concepts, following on from its venture with Uber. Levenstam says he is disappointed with the negative dialogue around future transport. ‘We already have autonomous drive, artificial intelligence and the general infrastructure to do this,’ he explains. ‘Fully autonomous drive has the potential to fundamentally change our society in many ways. It is about the freedom to move. It will have a profound impact on how people travel, how we design our cities and how we use infrastructure. But we are just one of many stakeholders, so we expect and invite a broad discussion as society learns how to make the most of this revolutionary technology. We see the 360c as a conversation starter, with more ideas and answers to come as we learn more.’
Volvo has always prided itself on being a leader in car safety, and the way this company fashions its fully autonomous cars is likely to set the benchmark for good design across the industry.