It’s 2010. Imagine leaving home for the morning commute to the office. Soon you’re whisking along the busy highway in a sleek, 2-person ultra-aerodynamic personal mobility vehicle, which uses little energy and rarely gets stuck in traffic.
Science fiction? Not if the designers and engineers at the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center (VMCC) in southern California get their way. They even have a name for their 21st century, ‘inline’ concept: Tandem, because the passenger sits comfortably behind, rather than beside, the driver.
“Maybe it sounds over-the-horizon, but we could deliver that vehicle before 2010,” says VMCC science officer Ichiro Sugioka.
The Tandem was developed from the thinking of a small team of designers, engineers and business developers working at VMCC.
“Our job is exploring the future and doing something really extraordinary,” says Lars Erik Lundin, VMCC general manager. “The Tandem was originally conceived as a vehicle to help solve the specific over-crowding and pollution problems of southern California, but we soon realized it taps into how people work, travel and think almost everywhere in the industrialized world nowadays.”
More than 77 per cent of all trips in the US, for example, involve either one or two occupants – and 90 per cent of all commuting trips involve just the driver, Volvo research shows. The statistics for Canada, Asia and Europe are not dissimilar.
Lundin says meeting the challenge of sustainable mobility is about looking at designs and hybrid technologies (electric drive, alternative fuels, and gas or diesel derivatives) that give “maximized total efficiency of mobility with minimized environmental impact.”
The way forward is both provocative and practical, says Doug Frasher, strategic design chief. It will involve car buyers changing their thinking from one-car-fits-all-needs to a scenario “where people own different cars for different reasons, just as we have different clothes for different social events; suits for work and jeans for play.”
He adds that, “We envision a ‘family’ matrix of cars, starting with the commuting Tandem, that will change the way the world thinks about auto ownership in the same way the Sony Walkman did for the audio industry.”
However, Volvo believes any new lightweight car must be fun to drive. “People will only change if they feel a sense of fun and enthusiasm with their driving environment,” says Frasher.
Any concept would also have to continue to support Volvo’s long-standing values. To that extent, says Kolita Mendis, structures and safety engineering manager, the aerodynamic Tandem would be as safe as a large Volvo.
According to US accident statistics, frontal impacts cause 50 per cent of all fatalities and side impacts some 30 per cent of fatalities.
“We compensated for the Tandem’s light weight with new occupant restraint concepts designed to handle frontal collisions with heavier vehicles,” says Mendis. “Also, the central positioning of Tandem occupants leaves ample room on either side to implement structural features mitigating the severity of side impacts. Our technical evidence is that Volvo would have no problem at all in delivering its traditional levels of driver and passenger safety.”
The Tandem is one example that stems from painstaking research that started in 1998 to examine past and current trends among various consumer and other audiences. The results were obtained by using wide-ranging techniques such as workshops, focus groups and customer panels.
“We created a timeline stretching from 1900 until 2010 with the aim of profiling future customers and the world they’d be inhabiting by understanding how trends emerge,” says Benny Sommerfeld, business development manager. “The timeline pinpointed likely future values, needs, desires and aspirations.”
Volvo’s study showed that consumer attitudes are becoming more homogenous due to factors such as the Internet and increasing global travel. Trend strategist Dirk Koring says findings on mobility issues in North America, Asia and Europe overlap substantially despite cultural and attitudinal differences.
“Increasingly we must appeal to people’s emotional sides,” Koring says. “For Volvo, that means delivering safety and environmental care which is both functional, cool and smart rather than just a flashy design. Concept cars have traditionally been a fantasy of an individual, but now we are creating imagination-stretching concepts based on solid appraisal of real-life customer expectations.”
Will the Tandem ever see the light of day? According to Geza Loczi, VMCC design director, the Tandem is “a real product still in its infancy that needs a lot of molding and tweaking to grow into a full-fledged finished product.”
For now, the two-passenger vehicle is an example of how VMCC develops conceptual and finished products by merging holistically the core skills of design, technology and business development.
“The goal of the VMCC since its establishment in 1986 has been to look for concepts in new places, put together smart ideas and turn them into action, helping Volvo Cars grow in today’s tough auto market,” says Frasher. “We aim to distinguish ourselves by seeing the Big Picture beyond design or style alone.”
This approach to designing a new car for how the world may look in 10, 20 or 30 years has already resulted in a series of tangible vehicles. VMCC helped produce such innovative Volvo cars as the XC90, Volvo’s entry into the world of SUVs, the S80 sedan, the top-selling S60, the eye-catching Safety Concept Car (SCC) and the Environmental Concept Car (ECC).
“The true test is whether any of our ideas gain traction in the real world, so it’s gratifying to see many of our original concepts being driven by happy customers as finished products in Europe, Asia and North America,” says Frasher.
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