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Volvo Car Corporation: Travels 'back to the future' to explore tomorrow's designs

22 September 2005

For a great many people around the world, Volvo Cars is synonymous with car safety. Now Volvo Cars designers are exploring new mobility futures with a view to re-imagining the very notion of car mobility and safety!

Imagine being head of design at one of the world’s best known car brands when a team of your designers proposes tearing up the legacy of over 100 years of auto design to pursue a new vision for personal mobility by 2020. Sounds challenging, doesn’t it? Yet that’s the project challenge designers at the Volvo Cars design center in Gothenburg, Sweden, threw at their design chief, Steve Mattin.

"Some of us were sitting around talking about modern design when we came up with the idea that it would be really cool if we could transform our thinking to completely reinvent the automobile," says Anders Gunnarson, chief designer at the Volvo Cars Strategic Design department and visiting professor at Umeå university, Sweden.

"Once we got the go-ahead to continue brainstorming, we soon realized the enormous potential of changing the very design architecture of cars that today steers everything from engine and handling performance to safety and environmental behaviour. By using new technologies, we could instead focus on overcoming the negatives aspects of the motoring experience to enhance the positive, such as driving pleasure and human well-being."    

New safety paradigm
The first task was to establish a new safety paradigm that involved moving away from the traditional design approach of starting from the outside and moving in. Instead, the Volvo Cars designers opted to start dreaming up a vision of the 2020 future by starting inside the vehicle and moving out.

"What proved so radical in taking this approach was that it prompted us to change our point of view when it came to safety and protecting the occupants of a vehicle. We decided that to be futuristic and visionary our Volvo car needed be designed and constructed so that it simply never had an accident!" Anders Gunnarson said.

This approach – novel to the auto industry, but common to the airline industry – allowed the Volvo Cars design team to throw away the book on how to make a car safer and plot a new course. By starting from scratch with no pre-conceived notions, the Volvo Car design team was able to go back to the future to evolve a personal mobility solution very, very different from the thinking behind today’s cars.

"In the past, we’ve found ourselves as designers ring-fenced by tens of thousands of safety and other regulations when designing and making a car. A zero accident focus enables us to focus on giving our customers what they really want," says Anders Gunnarson.

Artificial intelligence
One of the first attributes the designers decided to give their futuristic vision was artificial intelligence way beyond anything currently available. Their zero accident paradigm shift demands a ‘thinking’ car that can ‘see’ and ‘respond’ for itself to potentially dangerous situations faster than the driver is able to do.

This is not as futuristic as it first sounds. Volvo Cars recently launched an advanced ‘artificial’ assistant for drivers called the Volvo CoDriver. The intelligent system coordinates information from the car’s various systems and functions, studies the traffic situation, provides assistance in several ways and can ‘sense’ when the driver is suffering stress or tiredness, and alert him or her to the fact.  Volvo Cars also already offer computerized preventive safety features such as its BLIS camera-based blind spot monitoring system and will shortly launch an adaptive cruise control that uses radar to monitor the distance to the vehicle ahead and control speed automatically.

But for the re-imagined Volvo car of 2020 there is even more. The designers envisage that the car will actually ‘partner’ with those driving it, getting to know their specific driving styles and helping – politely, of course – to correct bad habits such as poor clutch technique that may cause heavier fuel consumption than is necessary. You’ll be able to chat with your Volvo, in a two way communication between driver and vehicle, using an entertaining, smart and well connected artificial intelligence system helping drivers keep their eyes firmly on the road.

Light weight materials
Today’s cars are designed to protect people inside in the event of an accident. This has lead to heavier cars built on strong, solid frames designed to provide a safety cage for the occupants. But heavier vehicles use more energy. The mathematics is straightforward: reduce the weight of the car the amount of energy needed to propel it is cut!

Volvo Cars imaginary 2020 car would use lightweight materials like plastics and natural fibers rather than metals, creating fresher designs without the need for heavy bumpers and structural beams cars require today. Dispensing with crumple zones would allow designers to use the extra space to create a stimulating, more attractive environment for driver and passengers alike as well as exploring exciting new forms and shapes.

Partnerships vital
"We know there are huge challenges ahead if we want sustainable mobility and the freedoms it brings," says Lex Kerssemakers, senior vice president, Brand, Business and Product Strategy at Volvo Cars.  "The design thoughts around the Volvo cars of 2020 demonstrate we understand the issues, take them seriously and are prepared and committed to do something about them. We know we can’t do everything on our own, so we are prepared to partner with the automotive industry and authorities to make things happen!"


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