Volvo has a new fully autonomous electric concept car. Actually, the automaker emphasizes its 360c is fully autonomous, lacking any provisions for a driver to jump behind the wheel. That alone isn’t extraordinary; we've seen such futuristic layouts from manufacturers for years now. We’ve even seen autonomous cars with reconfigurable interiors, which the 360c also features. Volvo regards its driverless concept vehicle in a slightly different manner, however, and it’s a very curious thing indeed. Rather than shutting passengers around town, the automaker envisions the 360c as an alternative to air travel. Seriously? Yeah, seriously.
“Domestic air travel sounds great when you buy your ticket, but it really isn’t,” said Mårten Levenstam, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Volvo. “The 360c represents what could be a whole new take on the industry. The sleeping cabin allows you to enjoy premium comfort and peaceful travel through the night and wake up refreshed at your destination. It could enable us to compete with the world’s leading aircraft makers.”
That’s a pretty bold claim to make, and we’re not just talking about this wacky notion of premium comfort or restful sleep existing on a crowded airplane. Volvo figures its 360c could be a viable alternative to air travel over shorter distances once arrival times and security checks are factored in. The company cites several U.S. air routes such as New York to Washington or Los Angeles to San Diego as examples, though we suspect Volvo execs have never driven such congested corridors. Even a properly fast car would have a very difficult time making any headway through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Then again, we don’t know how fast the 360c is. This is just an abstract concept vehicle, and Volvo doesn’t offer details on range or power. Instead, the company focuses on accommodations for passengers when driving isn’t a requirement. To that end, the 360c does offer impressive configuration and customization to suit a range of situations. For local routes, the concept can be set up as basically a rolling restaurant booth, complete with a touchscreen table. We also see it as a mobile office, and yes, for sleepy travelers on an overnight trip, it can transform into an autonomous roving bedroom.
Volvo certainly isn't the first automaker to showcase such a configurable driverless car. Challenging air travel on short routes, however, is a new angle and it poses an interesting alternative to the hurry-up-and-wait lifestyle that frequent flyers experience. That said, unless the 360c can conquer the problem of traffic congestion, we don’t expect to see driverless cars replacing regional flights anytime soon.
Gallery: Volvo 360c Concept
Volvo Cars’ new 360c autonomous concept: why fly when you can be driven?
Imagine a world in which you travel long distances without the need for airports. A world in which you can avoid airport security, hours of queuing and waiting, and noisy, cramped airliners. What if, instead, you could take your own first-class private cabin that picks you up at home and takes you from door to door?
It is this vision for the future of autonomous travel that Volvo Cars reveals today with its new Volvo 360c concept, a holistic view of a future of travel that is autonomous, electric, connected and safe. It could open up new growth markets for Volvo Cars, for example in the multi-billion dollar domestic air travel industry.
The basis of the 360c is a fully autonomous, fully electric car without a human driver. The concept capitalises on the freedom in design afforded by the absence of a steering wheel and a combustion engine, providing the ability to reimagine the traditional placement of passengers in rows of two or three.
The 360c presents four potential uses of autonomous driving vehicles – a sleeping environment, mobile office, living room and entertainment space – which all reimagine the way people travel. It also introduces a proposal for a global standard in how autonomous vehicles can safely communicate with all other road users.
“The business will change in the coming years and Volvo should lead that change of our industry,” said Håkan Samuelsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars. “Autonomous drive will allow us to take the big next step in safety but also open up exciting new business models and allow consumers to spend time in the car doing what they want to do.”
The 360c represents a potentially lucrative competitor to short-haul air travel, a multi-billion dollar industry comprising airlines, aircraft makers and other service providers. Especially shorter routes where the distance between origin and destination is around 300 kilometres are prime candidates for disruption by an alternative mode of travel.
For example, within the United States over 740 million travellers embarked on domestic flights last year and America’s domestic air travel industry is worth billions of dollars in revenue. Several busy domestic air routes, such as New York to Washington DC, Houston to Dallas and Los Angeles to San Diego, are more time-consuming by air than by car when including things such as travel to the airport, security checks and waiting times.
“Domestic air travel sounds great when you buy your ticket, but it really isn’t. The 360c represents what could be a whole new take on the industry,” said Mårten Levenstam, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Volvo Cars. “The sleeping cabin allows you to enjoy premium comfort and peaceful travel through the night and wake up refreshed at your destination. It could enable us to compete with the world’s leading aircraft makers.”
Beyond new potential customer groups for Volvo Cars’ business, the 360c also carries implications for the future of travel, city planning, infrastructure and modern society’s environmental footprint. It does not just reimagine how people travel but also looks at how people engage with friends and family while on the move, and how they can recapture time while travelling in the cities of the future.
“Autonomous vehicle concepts have a tendency to become a technology showcase instead of a vision of how people use it,” said Robin Page, senior vice president of design at Volvo Cars. “But Volvo is a human-centric brand. We focus on the daily lives of our customers and how we can make them better. The 360c is the next iteration of this approach.”
The 360c is a first yet deliberate step towards a broad discussion about the potential for autonomous driving technology to fundamentally change society in many ways.
“When the Wright brothers took to the skies in 1903, they did not have a clue about what modern air travel would look like,” said Mårten Levenstam. “We do not know what the future of autonomous drive will hold, but it will have a profound impact on how people travel, how we design our cities and how we use infrastructure. We regard the 360c as a conversation starter, with more ideas and answers to come as we learn more.”