Volvo Concept 26 First Look

#hashtags: #Tokyo Motor Show #Concept 26

If we’re talking about autonomous driving, we must be talking about another space pod, right? You know the ones. Check our Tokyo Motor Show coverage if you need a refresher. Jellybean-shaped cars with wraparound couches or swivel chairs, nonexistent holographic entertainment systems, and more screens than anyone could ever need. This isn’t that. In fact, this isn’t even a whole car. Volvo’s Concept 26, or C26 for short, is a dashboard, center console, and driver’s seat. That’s it. But it’s also more than that. It’s the first realistic look at what an automotive interior might look like in the near future when autonomous driving comes to market. The problem with the space pods is they’re all looking too far into the future. Perhaps someday autonomous cars will be so good they never crash and we won’t need seatbelts or airbags, but that’s a long, long way off. For the foreseeable future, cars will still look like cars, partly due to practical limitations and partly because, according to Volvo’s consumer research, most people don’t want to be driven in a pod. In fact, the research says most people today don’t want full start-to-finish autonomous driving yet. Only 50 percent of respondents were positive about autonomous driving at all, and 50 percent said they love driving. Some 70 percent of luxury buyers claimed they drove for pleasure at least once a week (counting something as simple as going on a date as pleasurable driving). What most people can agree on, though, is that they hate their commute. Fact is, if you’re most Americans, your commute sucks. Due to the design of most of our cities, you probably don’t live near your job, and there’s a good chance you live in a suburb. More likely than not, you use at least one freeway to get to and from work. Sixty percent of you leave early or late to try to beat the traffic, and 20 percent of you actually moved closer to your job. The average American commute is 26 minutes (rant about yours in the comments), hence Concept 26. Volvo’s approach starts with a simple question: What would you rather be doing during your commute? A quick look around at the other cars on the road will show you many people are already doing something other than driving. Driving isn’t fun when you’re stuck in traffic, and when you get bored, your mind wanders. What if you could do something with that time? Even just a few minutes would allow you to safely respond to texts and emails, and 30 minutes would get you a whole TV show. Volvo’s approach is also pragmatic. The front-engine, two- or three-box vehicle design has been around since the dawn of the automobile because it works the best, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. If the general dimensions and layout of the automobile interior aren’t going to change, then any design will have to make the best use of the space available, so Concept 26 is designed to work with Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture, which will underpin all its new vehicles starting with the new XC90. The next limitation to contend with is the vehicle’s controls. Almost all respondents—96 percent—wanted a steering wheel and pedals in their autonomous car, whether for pleasure driving, for emergencies, or just to have the option to take control (sorry, Google). So those stay, and they need to be readily accessible in an emergency. That also means front seats that swivel around are out, and really, they weren’t going to pass any crash tests, anyway. (Traveling sideways or backward also tends to make people carsick.) To recap, then, the real autonomous car of the near future must still have all the usual controls, and the seats must still face forward, and all of it must fit in the same package as a traditional car interior. However, it must also give the driver the ability and space to do other things while the car is driving itself. Volvo approached this puzzle from two angles: comfort and entertainment. Comfort starts with the seat. Automatically moving the seat back and the steering wheel forward gives you space to stretch out, but there’s still the matter of the seat itself. Traditional car seats pivot at the base of the backrest, which is a fine solution engineering-wise and works great as long as you’re sitting upright. As anyone who’s ever leaned the passenger seat back and tried to sleep through a long road trip knows, though, they’re terrible when reclined. Your back just doesn’t bend like that. Volvo’s solution: split the seat bottom and let it bend. This way, the part under your butt tilts with the backrest, so your spine and pelvis stay properly aligned. The part under your thighs stays level, so your feet aren’t pointing up in the air. It’s more like a cross between a lounge chair and a good office chair than a car seat. Trying it out personally, I can tell you it’s very comfortable no matter how far you lean it back. Now that you’re comfortable, you’ll probably want to entertain yourself. You could use your phone or a tablet, but you’ll get tired of holding it, and it could become a dangerous projectile in an emergency. Not to worry. Volvo’s got you covered. The passenger’s side of the dash is actually a hidden 25-inch screen that rotates up on command. Now you’ve got a nice big screen to work with without ruining the aesthetics of the interior when it’s not in use. The screen is controlled from Volvo’s Sensus touchscreen information and entertainment system, which has been decoupled from the dash and is now a tablet mounted to the center console. To keep it within easy reach, the center console moves with the driver’s seat. With your phone connected wirelessly, you can do email, make calls, read documents, surf the Internet, or watch video all on the big screen. OK, sounds good, but how much are you going to be able to enjoy catching up on “Game of Thrones” if you’re constantly worrying about the car dropping out of autonomous driving mode? They’ve thought of that, too, and the answer is simple: a timer. Early autonomous driving isn’t going to be full point-A-to-point-B autopilot. Not only is driving on city streets incredibly difficult for the computer, but many people also prefer to do that part themselves. The first cars offering truly autonomous driving will focus on the freeway, which usually has good lane markings and is a more controlled environment with far fewer variables (no pedestrians, for a start). Plus, it’s usually pretty boring driving. Someday, when the technology advances far enough, you’ll be able to have the car drive you from start to finish if you like, but until then, most (if not all) systems will be restricted to freeway use. When its first autonomous car hits the market, Volvo sees it all working like this: You’ll get in your car, input a destination in the navigation with the Sensus screen, and choose either the quickest route or the route with the most potential autonomous driving time. Then you’ll do the driving on city streets until you reach the freeway, at which point an icon on the map in the digital instrument cluster, a message in the same display, and an audible alert will notify you autonomous driving mode is available. You pull back on both steering wheel paddles simultaneously for 3 seconds, and the car takes over. The tachometer disappears and is replaced with a timer showing exactly how many minutes you have until you’ll need to take over driving again. The speedometer and map remain, so you can monitor how the car is driving at any time. If the car decides to pass someone, a graphic will appear on the screen to indicate the upcoming maneuver, so you’re never surprised. Now that the car is dealing with the traffic, it’s time to relax. From the Sensus display, you can select four different seating options. The default is Drive, putting you upright and in your preset driving position. The next is Create, which moves the seat back, pulls the steering wheel toward the dash, reclines the seat, and deploys the big screen. If you’d rather read a book or listen to music, choose Relax, which reclines the seat farther and extends a leg rest but stows the big screen. If at any point you’re getting uncomfortable, which is bound to happen, select Free and you can position the seat however you like just by leaning backward or forward. Pressing the Free selection again locks the seat in place. When it’s time to drive again, the car alerts you with a marker on the map and an audible cue, and the timer begins a 60-second countdown. Select the Drive seat setting, and the seat will move more quickly back into driving position and the steering wheel will extend. Signal your readiness to take over by holding the steering wheel paddles simultaneously for 3 seconds again. It’s all pretty slick, and Volvo says it’s all doable with current technology, but you can see there are a few issues to be worked out first. The biggest issue, as always, is cost. An all-new seat that functions completely differently than any automotive seat before it is going to cost more until production is big enough. More screens means more money. All the electric motors necessary to move the seat, center console, and big screen cost money. Engineering all of this stuff to work for years under everyday abuse takes time, which means money. A more complicated interior is going to take more time to assemble, especially to luxury car fit-and-finish standards, which costs money. Then there are the little things, such as the B-pillar. Go look at your car. The B-pillar is pretty plain because it’s usually hidden by the front seat. When the seat goes back in to Create or Relax mode, you’re going to be able to see the B-pillar in your normal field of vision, so cheaping out on the B-pillar won’t fly, especially in a luxury car. That’s more money for design, engineering, and materials. Then there’s weight. Weight is the enemy of performance and fuel economy. More electric motors and screens and B-pillar trim and everything else all add weight. Also an issue: crash safety. A reclined seat introduces the possibility of submarining, that is, sliding out under the seat belt in a crash. That’s why modern car seats only recline so far. Moving the seat away from the steering wheel also means moving it away from the airbag. That big screen in the dash also can’t be causing problems for the front seat passenger in a crash. This leads us to more practical problems. For one, airbag placement. The passenger’s front airbag will still need go somewhere, and it will still need to deploy whether the big screen is out or hidden. The passenger’s side vent will still need to work, too, regardless of screen position. The concept configuration also leaves no place for a glove box. You may also be wondering where passengers fit into this concept. On the one hand, most people spend the vast majority of the time in their car alone, so this concept is designed around the driver. But say you have a passenger in the front seat. Not really a big deal as long as the big screen doesn’t invade that person’s space too much when it deploys and stows. Say that person wants to use the screen while the car is not in autonomous mode, though. Existing technology allows a screen to show different images depending on the angle you view it from, so Volvo says it’s not too much of a problem. Wireless headphones may be in order, though, if the passengers can’t all agree on what to watch or listen to. Then there are rear seat passengers. Again, you statistically won’t have any most of the time, but when you do, Volvo says limiting seat travel so as not to smush rear seat passengers wouldn’t be difficult. The big question, then, is when we might actually see this setup in an actual car. Because this interior is designed around the possibilities and realities of autonomous driving, its fate is directly linked to that technology. In other words, you’ll get this interior at the same time you get your autonomous car. When will that be? Volvo, like many of its competitors, is hard at work on autonomous driving technology and hopes to offer it to the general public in a few years’ time. There are a number of hurdles yet to overcome, but the company has three cars on the road now, driving themselves and gathering data in Sweden. Next year, Volvo plans to start leasing test vehicles to real customers in Sweden and have 100 of them on the road by 2017. If all goes well, that program will last a year or two, by which point Volvo will have learned enough and proven the technology and will be ready to offer it in series production. Many of us car enthusiasts see autonomous driving as the death of our passion, but most of us will also concede that we wouldn’t mind the car driving itself in bumper-to-bumper traffic or on a long, straight, boring highway. Volvo’s approach, which it refers to as “cherry picking the drives you want” and letting the car do the commuting, is a fair compromise that makes the future of driving look a little less bleak.