Volvo’s Concept 26 Seat is an Autonomous Car Trust Fall

Swedish automaker delivers a concept cockpit straight out of a futuristic Brookstone catalog.

Last week, at the L.A. Auto Show, Volvo unveiled the latest element in its plan to market a self-driving car by 2020. It’s called Concept 26, named for the average daily one-way commuting time (in minutes) of the average American driver. It is, for now, nothing but a shape-shifting seat and a trio of screens. But the location, presence, and movement of these components, and the trio of modes of which they’re capable—Create, Relax, and Drive—offer something radical: The idea that future drivers (or, um, operators) will confront a variety of situations in their vehicles, and will want to respond to them in different ways.

In Create mode, the seat moves back, the steering wheel retracts, and a large monitor revolves into view. It replaces the passenger side dashboard, allowing the driver to use an iPad-like device in the center console to surf the Internet, read, write, or make a nice drawing. In Drive mode, the instruments function much as they would in a “normal” vehicle, allowing the driver to, well, drive. In Relax mode, the seat reclines completely, for napping or comfortable perusing of the latest Architect’s Digest. Even here, the seat keeps the driver’s—sorry, operator’s—eyes above dash level, so they can see out.

“This position is necessary to engage trust in the vehicle,” says Tisha Johnson, the head of design for Volvo North America. And, as we’ve heard elsewhere, trust is the new buzzword in autonomiety, key in creating human connection to driverless vehicles.

“In building the foundation for trust, we cannot claim trust,” says Marcus Rothoff, head of Volvo’s autonomous driving program. “We have to earn trust. So we need to get the customer to experience the functionality in a way that builds trust.”

How is this done, and being done, leading up to Volvo’s stated goal of offering a fully autonomous vehicle by the start of this next decade—one for which the company will assume complete liability in the event of an at fault accident? Rothoff says that it involves a three-pronged approach.

Relentless innovation and laboratory testing are the first two phases, creating the innovative systems and trying them out, scientifically, under various controlled circumstances. This, Rothoff sees as the easy part. “Well, not easy. But more straightforward. It is problem solving.”

But the true test arrives when the vehicle is put in the hand of actual consumers. “In the end it’s the real customer that will decide if they trust it or not,” Rothoff says.

Volvo plans to attempt just this in 2017, in their Drive Me program, providing autonomous vehicles to 100 consumers in Gothenburg, Sweden. This just so happens to be the location of the company’s headquarters, a town in which every square inch of roadway will be 3D mapped and stockpiled in a computer cloud to which these vehicles will have constant access. Safe play, especially considering that Volvo is to Gothenburg what Faulkner is to Oxford, Miss.

In preparing for this real world testing, one of the big philosophical (and engineering) questions: How to deliver vehicular control back to a human if the computer finds itself overwhelmed, outflanked, or rendered functionally incapable by bad weather or failed circuits. And how to execute this, from the moment of intervention until the vehicle is stopped safely, if the human behind the wheel is asleep, or ill, or drunk.

“That’s the problem from a basic technical solution. Because we cannot rely on a driver, we need also a redundant brake system, we need redundant steering, and for the sensors we need redundant power supply. We need redundant computer power so the car can—if one computer goes down we need another one. We need redundant electric architecture. We need fuel solutions everywhere. So if one sensor goes out, we will lose some sensors, but we will still have sensors enough to maneuver. Maybe in lower speeds, or other restrictions, but the system has to be capable of taking itself to a safe stop.”

This seems like an overwhelming multiplicity of layers and challenges, but Rothoff says he sleeps well. At least, currently. He expects his stress to increase as milestone dates approach. “I think we will have a bumpy road, for sure. We are quite sure of how to make it happen. But we also are really sure that we will meet problems on the way.”

What keeps him going is his belief that these struggles will be worth it for a larger human/vehicular cause.

“In the Fifties the car became the symbol of freedom. You we able to go where you wanted, open roads and everything like that. Now, with our children looking at the car- should I take a driver’s license, and commute? It’s not really fun. No one likes that kind of driving. So that’s not freedom. But if we can open up that, I think we can make a big difference for mobility.”

Perhaps larger than this, once cars can drive themselves, there is the question of how to brand the experience of owning high-end vehicles. A carmaker can no longer trade on excellent steering feel or handling. And as driving loses relevance and becomes more about functional mobility, automakers must find new ways to connect consumers to their particular marque.

“If the luxury and premium car will survive as a freedom symbol,” Rothoff says, “we need to open up time as a new dimension of freedom. Because I want to feel in control of my time. I want to use my time efficiently. Because everyone has—we, we lose time.”