GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN—Concept cars come in a range of different flavors. There’s the “you’ll be able to buy a slightly less stylish version of this” concept, meant to get the public ready for a new model that’s just months from sale.
There’s the, “Hey look at us (and ignore our bland production cars)” concept, like the Chrysler Atlantic or Cadillac Sixteen. And then there’s the, “Let’s imagine 20 years off into the future” concept. Volvo’s latest, called 360c, is definitely one of the latter.
“This is an example of how new opportunities will open up with new technologies,” said Volvo CEO and President Håkan Samuelsson as we got our first glimpse of the 360c. It’s an optimistic reading of how Volvo thinks the company might evolve as electric propulsion, autonomous driving, and AI assistants make the process of getting from A to B much more multimodal.
Yes, the good old “office on wheels” idea is present and accounted for, but only as one of a number of possible configurations for the 360c. “Have we lost empathy for the traveler?” Samuelsson asked. “It’s not about squeezing more time into your work day.” So it’s also a sleeper car that could compete with short-haul air travel or regional rail travel, silently whisking you from Paris to Berlin overnight. Or, it can be a daytime version, perfect for some sightseeing along the way. Or, it’s even a VIP lounge on wheels, perfect for downing a bottle of something bubbly with friends on a night out.
“Freedom to move is what it’s all about. Transportation, mobility, just getting to places, moving around, and having fun,” explained Mårten Levenstam, senior VP for product strategy at Volvo. “This is an example of how we can provide freedom to move, but it’s a much bigger discussion than just the cars downstairs.” Levenstam compared the various emerging technologies we bundle together under the mobility moniker with the early days of airplanes and automobiles.
“When something big is happening, you always miss what’s taking off,” he explained, referring to the fact that when the first plane took to the air in 1903, few people imagined that air travel would become as routine as it has. “Now it’s simple to put the Wright brothers into context,” Levenstam said. “Or when the car was invented, everyone thought it was just a faster horse and carriage, without the horse. But they failed to understand that all our cities would be completely redesigned due to the invention of the car.”
Just as smartphones became more than just touchscreen versions of our old feature phones, Levenstam said it’s wrong to think narrowly about autonomous driving technology. “Yes it’s a car without a steering wheel, or maybe a taxi without a driver, but I think it will have much, much bigger applications,” he said.
A 21st-century sleeper car
We’ll start with the most provocative of Volvo’s ideas—that something like the 360c could challenge short-haul domestic flight. Using the example of a Gothenburg to Stockholm trip, Levenstam referred to the fact that a 50 minute flight time is actually four hours door-to-door once you get to the airport, through security, and then from the airport on the other end. As anyone who has to fly regularly knows—and the assembled journalists certainly met that description—those aren’t four hours of quality time.
The same trip in a 360c might take a little longer, it could deliver you to your destination in a lot more comfort. Longer journeys overnight would be possible with the sleeper configuration which—with the exception of an attentive cabin crew, and a bathroom—rivals the most luxurious first class airplane seat. A safety blanket would replace the seatbelt when it’s time to lie down, attaching to restraint points to keep the occupant safe as they slept.
Volvo doesn’t imagine selling this kind of autonomous vehicle to individual customers, and it’s not interested in owning and running its own transportation network. But Levenstam said he could see airlines buying and operating such fleets as they diversified.