“The future is not something that will just happen. We can change it. Otherwise, we become a victim of it,” Mårten Levenstam, Volvo’s product strategy chief, suggested in a calm, thoughtful tone.
The Swedish company’s on-going metamorphosis mirrors the transformation the entire automotive industry is experiencing. The 360c concept unveiled at Volvo’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, puts a face on these changes. It’s fully autonomous; it doesn’t have pedals or a steering wheel. It’s entirely electric. It’s connected. And, on a different but equally important level, it made its global debut at a standalone event instead of at an international auto show.
Let’s get one fact out of the way: the 360c won’t reach mass production. Volvo won’t replace the XC40 with a box on wheels that turns the driver into a passenger. The concept merely explores what could be possible in a few years’ time if technology advances at the rate decision-makers predict it will. More than anything, the firm’s designers and executives want to start a sincere conversation about how self-driving cars will fit into our society, the benefits they can bring us, and the obstacles standing in their way.
“The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics that basically invented aviation by accident. No one understood what was happening. They created headlines but no one could have perceived the massive changes air travel would bring,” Levenstam pointed out. He gave us another example. “When I saw the first smartphone I thought ‘it’s like my old stupid phone but without buttons.’ That doesn’t really explain what has happened with the connected devices.”
The development of self-driving cars is at a similar point, Levanstam argued. It’s more than a car without a steering wheel or a taxi without a driver; it can have far-reaching implications on the way millions of people move around. Volvo’s 360c concept explores one of those implications by proposing an alternative to flights that take about an hour. The Swedish company posits most travelers would much rather spend time relaxing, working, or sleeping in an autonomous car than going through the process of driving to the airport, rushing through security, boarding a plane and sitting in it for an hour surrounded by sneezing strangers and screaming infants.
The concept merely explores what could be possible in a few years’ time if technology advances at the rate decision-makers predict it will.
“My plan is not for Volvo to start an airline; definitely not. There aren’t many airlines who also make aircrafts and not many aircraft manufacturers run an airline. We could replace Airbus and Boeing by selling this car to Lufthansa, Air France, Japan Airlines, or whoever,” Levenstam said. It could be part of the journey. Imagine flying from Frankfurt to New York City a nd hopping in a Delta-operated, Volvo-built 360c-like shuttle from JFK to Philadelphia. Or, with the right infrastructure, taking one overnight from Berlin to Copenhagen.
The 360c’s interior takes several different forms. In one, it’s a lounge with four individual seats – two facing backwards – and a table in the middle. In another, it’s a private pod with a single seat that reclines into a bed for full luxury on longer trips. It’s for people who don’t want to leave their comfort zone. Designers envision the interior with a sink, a wide screen for entertainment, and a cabinet with three spacious drawers. The top one holds personal belongings, the middle one stores food for the journey, and the bottom one is big enough for a pillow and a cutting-edge blanket.
Yes, we just said that.
Showing it’s completely serious about autonomous transportation, Volvo is in the early stages of developing a blanket that offers the same protection as a three-point seatbelt. It doesn’t have a prototype to show the world yet but it hopes to have the technology ready when it starts production of its first self-driving car.
The high-tech blanket is just one piece of this mind-boggling puzzle. The technology required for a car to drive itself in a wide array of circumstances is another one. Volvo is confident that it’s closer to figuring it all out than many observers inside and outside of the automotive industry think possible.
“None of what you see today [on the 360c] is existing in the sense that we could start producing it tomorrow but a lot of it isn’t rocket science, either. One of the key things for us to solve technically is the fact that you would have people sitting facing rearwards, and we need to put in effort to make that absolutely safe from a crash perspective. Apart from that, everything you see here is known technology,” Henrik Green, Volvo’s vice president of research and development, told Digital Trends.
One of the key things for us to solve technically is the fact that you would have people sitting facing rearwards, and we need to put in effort to make that absolutely safe from a crash perspective.
He added one part of the 360c concept that most likely won’t reach production is the modular interior. It’s easier and much more cost-effective to make a body that can be fitted with multiple interiors than to create an all-in-one package. Users who need a sleeper car can order a sleeper car; those who want a party car can order a party car. Of course, nothing is currently set in stone and Volvo could change its mind as production nears. The undeniable wow-factor of an interior that changes at the press of a button could be worth the cost and effort required to develop it.
Once it can reliably drive itself, an autonomous car needs to blend into every day traffic. Communication is key, and Green stressed no one should misunderstand a self-driving Volvo. To that end, the 360c emits audible and visual signals to communicate with other cars – whether they’re computer- or human-driven – and pedestrians. It makes its intentions clear without giving orders. For example, it could announce “I’m about to turn right” but it’s never going to tell another vehicle “go ahead and turn right.” Volvo’s research shows effective communication is a key part of rolling out autonomous cars safely. Otherwise, our streets will become a chaotic mess of exasperated humans and baffled robots.
Significantly, Green announced Volvo will build a fully autonomous car without pedals or a steering wheel on the modular SPA2 platform that the next-generation XC90 will inaugurate in 2021. He was understandably reluctant to peg a firm date on the launch of a self-driving car, however. It largely depends on whether Volvo designs the technology in-house or if it teams up with a company like Uber. It’s keeping both options on the table and it hasn’t decided which route to take yet.
Executives also needs to slash through a jungle of red tape at home and abroad before they can legally put autonomous cars in the hands of the general public. Remember: Audi couldn’t receive permission to put a level three system on the road. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is getting the public to accept autonomous cars as a normal form of transportation. Would you hop in a shuttle in Los Angeles, fall asleep, and trust it to take you to San Francisco? The final hurdle could be the most difficult one to clear.
“Some people immediately start to trust the vehicle and disconnect all of their senses. Some people have much more difficulty doing that. I think we will see that some people will not be ready when this technology rolls out,” Green concluded.