When you think about it, autonomous cars don’t ever need to exist. They’re not inevitable. The internet and the web? If they hadn’t come about in the way that they did, some other forms of mass transglobal communications would have emerged. Same goes for the smartphone. But the self-driving car has always seemed to me like the electric toothbrush: sure, it’s better than doing the job myself, but it’s not instrumental or essential to the future. More a luxury that makes life easier for those who can afford it than a true world-changing invention. Volvo, and frankly every other car company out there, disagrees.
I’ve been in Gothenburg this week to see the unveiling of Volvo’s distant-future concept car called the 360c. This all-electric, fully autonomous, modular vehicle comes accompanied by lofty proclamations instead of a steering wheel. The Swedish automaker believes cars like the 360c will change the infrastructure between and within cities, alter our ways of living and working, and even potentially upend the short-haul flight industry.
The 360c is less a car and more a manifesto for disruptive change. I heard a chorus of high ambition from the full roster of Volvo Cars’ most senior decision-makers: CEO Håkan Samuelsson, head of strategy Mårten Levenstam, chief designer Robin Page, and safety director Malin Ekholm. But it wasn’t until I saw the prototype cars up close and took a VR ride in one that I truly grasped what they were talking about.
Autonomous cars have the potential to save us from ourselves.
My initial concern about the Volvo 360c was that it looked like yet another designer’s indulgence, featuring a long glass canopy that terminates in a pair of prominent fins at the back. The front is aggressively divorced from anything we can consider conventional car design of the present, and the door — there’s only one, always facing the curb — is a massive butterfly door that’s rivaled only by other luxury concept cars like Aston Martin’s Lagonda and Rolls-Royce’s Vision 100. The 360c has been built to be about the same size as Volvo’s luxury XC90 SUV, albeit with more interior space thanks to the absence of a combustion engine. In brief, this car promises to be both expansive and expensive.
In a world where personal transportation will increasingly be defined by the need for nimble city cars that can whizz populations across ever denser urban landscapes, this big lumbering transporter seems out of place. Or, at best, it seems like it’d have only a niche application. I’m not here to convince you otherwise — and I’m not sure that I believe it myself — but I gave Volvo a chance to show me its concept in practice and I walked away profoundly impressed by the experience.
Firstly, those exterior flourishes aren’t just for show. The fins at the back are actually an information board, used to indicate a reservation number when the 360c is used in a ride-hailing scenario. All those awkward San Francisco lunchtime moments where four Ubers turn up at the same spot and you’ve no idea which one is yours? Volvo’s concept resolves that problem. There are also information readouts at the front of the car, fitted right next to the LED headlights, and integrated below them is a black bar with radar detectors, 3D cameras, and a laser sensor. That sensor bar is also mirrored on the back, and all around the car is a 360-degree strip of LED lights that are used to communicate the car’s intent to pedestrians and human-driven cars.
Using a mix of sound and light, the Volvo 360c communicates (a) when it’s on and its autonomous mode is active, (b) when it intends to depart a stationary position and its direction, (c) when it senses a cyclist or pedestrian nearby, and (d) an alert targeted to anyone who might be in the car’s path. The wing mirrors of the 360c are replaced by 3D cameras facing both the front and back, but they still extend out a little further, just to give more visibility and emphasis to the car’s visual signals. There’s basically no flamboyance about this design that doesn’t serve a legitimate functional purpose.
In classic Volvo style, the 360c was a collaborative effort between the design and safety teams. Volvo’s safety chief Ekholm, who has been with the company for over 20 years, tells me that at every stage of developing the concept, the designers and safety engineers exchanged ideas and reached solutions collectively. One small example of that is the blanket provided in the 360c sleeping car concept: it’s both designed to be welcoming and comfortable, but it’ll also serve as sort of protective harness to keep the passenger in place.
The 360c is one car, one platform and exterior design, but on the inside, it offers a number of configurations that are not interchangeable.
First among them — and the most indulgent, in my opinion — is the aforementioned sleeper car. Designed for one passenger only (though Volvo argues it could squeeze in a double bed, if there’s demand for it), it has room for your luggage, a compartment for meals you can order in advance via an app, and another storage slot for blankets and your favorite plush toy. A curved, voice-controlled display at the front of the car and a retractable desk in the middle allow you to both work and play, and when you’re ready to doze off, everything hides away and your chair slinks down into the shape of a comfortable bed. Watching all this mechanical choreography in action is a lot more impressive in person than reading about it in text. It has a kinetic appeal to it. Oh, the table also has a second mode where it presents you with a waterfall faucet and a little sink, so that you may wash up in the morning after your overnight trip.
This concept is the thing Volvo wants us to believe can replace short-haul flights. Volvo chief strategist Levenstam makes the case thusly: Instead of the desperate trudge to and from airports, the interminable long lines at security checks, and the dreaded cramped economy seats, why don’t you just have a car pick you up at your home and drop you off at your destination? New York to Washington, Frankfurt to Munich, Stockholm to Gothenburg, whatever journeys you typically take a short flight for, an all-electric, autonomous car can take you there faster, more comfortably, more sustainably, and in a more personal fashion.
Wearing my autonomous-driving-skeptic hat, I challenged Levenstam as to whether taking 150 people off a flight and into gargantuan one-ton electric pods like the 360c, one for each person, would truly be more efficient than a plane. He responded with an effervescent “yes!” The first thing is that airplanes are a major source of pollution, and “from a sustainability point of view, flying is really, really bad.” Electric cars aren’t entirely free of environmental impact, of course, but they’re much better than hopping aboard a plane.
Levenstam envisions the sleeper 360c car to be something that Volvo sells on to established airlines like Lufthansa or Japan Airlines. “Volvo cannot be an airline on wheels,” he insists, but it can be the Boeing or Airbus of the roads. He strengthens his efficiency argument by making a rough comparison between the capital costs of acquiring a plane versus a car. An Airbus A380 costs close to half a billion dollars and accommodates about 500 people, so it’s around $1 million per seat, whereas “a really decent” modern car costs around $50,000, which with five seats gives you a cost of about $10,000 per seat. So it would be in airlines’ interest to diversify their offering with an autonomous road vehicle. Even so, my doubts about where we’d fit all these single sleeper cells on the roads remain.
The other 360c concepts are rather more straightforward. The office car again has a retractable table in the middle, but that’s surrounded by four seats. The table can grind and brew coffee for you, and it has a touchscreen panel at its top, which will pull files off your phone when you place it on the surface, and you can then swipe those spreadsheets and graphs directly onto the nearest window. The party car is similarly arranged, except its center has a champagne cooler and glass rack and the glass roof is lit up with sparkly lights.
I most enjoyed the living room 360c concept, which is the most versatile and true to how most of us might use a future autonomous car. It was also the basis for the demo I experienced through a HTC Vive VR headset in one of the demo 360c chassis. Another four-seater arrangement, though this time with two of the seats able to hide away to open more space, this demo took me on a theoretical long-distance ride.
Touch panels integrated into the sides of the car allowed me to control basic parameters like the temperature. A voice assistant awaited my commands with a friendly greeting projected onto one of the windows. And the center column on my side was ready to either warm up or cool down my drink. Next to that was a scent selector, and the demo me chose to activate lavender, which both releases the scent and fills the windows with images of lavender fields. Even without smelling any lavender, I found this profoundly relaxing. My seat, detecting I wanted to chill out, automatically leaned back and kicked my feet up. It was super relaxing, and it also made a really good point about VR: this demo wouldn’t have worked if I’d been sat at a random table somewhere, I had to be in that ultra comfy seat to get the full visual, aural, and ergonomic experience.
Volvo’s 360c concept car won’t be a solution to the biggest problems of human transportation over the coming decades. But, as the company points out, it’s a conversation starter, and it’s meant to be a little edgier, more thought-provoking than a real and final product. As such, I think it carries over a great deal of the strengths that Volvo is known for, especially the thoughtful combination of design and safety. The idealist in me believes that improving forms of mass transit and replacing car infrastructure with cycling lanes is the best way to go about improving the sustainability of our future transport, but Volvo has shown me a vision for how cars can play a constructive role in that future, too.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge