Volvo’s “Highway Robbery” Steals From the Innocent, Says “Thank You”

Swedes claim they're making a point about hybrids and energy. The real point is that there's a whole new Volvo coming.

Volvo Highway Robbery

Volvo has something to tell you. Correction. Volvo has things to tell you, but it will not hogtie its tidings with press releases and direct mailers – the low-sodium Saltine and dry-hump, respectively, of new announcements. The Swedish carmaker is only content to make statements about its ideas, its future, and its brand by making big public statements. Hence “Highway Robbery,” a marvelous mechanical shout-out to the XC90 T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid dreamed up by Bob Partington.

Formerly the host of the History Channel show ThingamaBob, Partington comes off like the experimental rock band keyboardist – playing ‘boards and synths of his own design – who gave up the stadium grind to focus on his da Vinci. ThingamaBob put MacGuyver on mushrooms; given a few notions to tackle an everyday challenge, Partington and crew worked up eccentric contraptions. “You know what could slice pickles?”, they’d ask. “A nuclear submarine.” And then they’d build one out of watch batteries and buttons and leftover Ikea bits.

For Highway Robbery he devised a peristaltic hydraulic pump that used passing cars to convert hydraulic pressure into electricity that would charge the battery in an XC90 hybrid. The system explained in the behind-the-scenes video was the proof-of-concept, more compact and less impressive than the actual contraption: a closed system built of 500 feet of one-inch fire hose, 100 feet of PVC pipe, an accumulator tank and holding tank with 200 total gallons of water, a chrome-lined hydraulic piston, reduction gears, six deep-cycle marine batteries, 40-feet of roll-up wood planking, and other paraphernalia. It took a crew a day to set up.

Commandeering a piece of highway in Lancaster, California, commuters in the right-hand lane drove over the 40 feet of planks. Each car’s wheels rolled over water-filled fire hoses under the planking, pushing water through PVC pipes into the accumulator – that’s the peristaltic part. When enough pressure built up in the tank, it would shunt water to the piston, initiating a ten-inch stroke that turned reduction gears that ultimately cranked a generator that powered marine batteries that sent 110V juice to a household outlet on a plinth, where a thirsty XC90 PHEV drank the fruit of months of R&D and labor. It was like using Coney Island to charge a car. Which is totally cool.

Volvo estimated 800 to 1,000 cars drove through on the first day, leveling up more than half a charge. Some of the Internet punditry, however, took the exercise most seriously, cracking their tasseled keyboard whips at this parasitic skullduggery. Whatever the Swedish version of a little white lie is, it’s true that Volvo told one when it claimed to use “cars’ wasted energy.” In fact, the cars that rumbled over the slats needed extra energy to do so, which Volvo then skimmed. But this is called “robbery” – of fractions of pennies, mind you – for a reason. Plus, every passing car received a personalized “Thank you!” for its contribution on the nearby jumbotron, because even thieving Swedes know the meaning of gratitude.

It’s not the first time Volvo has made much to-do to charge a car. In 2013 it worked with LA-based Synthesis Design + Architecture on the Pure Tension pavilion for the V60 diesel plug-in hybrid. That used a large, flexible solar panel sculpture that, disassembled, could fit inside the V60’s trunk. And it was held together with “sex bolts.” So of course it was awesome.

Yet that and Highway Robbery are more than just nifty ways to move electrons and start conversations about harnessing energy; these are part of the big statements the brand is making about where it stands in the constellation of automakers. This latest in particular is about how the brand approaches power delivery and hybrids, which is unlike any other carmaker we can think of.

The relevant bombast here is Volvo having committed itself to being “a 4-cylinder car company,” augmenting four-pot power in certain models with forced induction and batteries. According to the rumors, three-cylinder engines come next. No other premium or luxury automaker would entertain that dogma.

Volvo installed the first plug-in hybrid powertrain on its new SPA architecture on the largest car it makes, then made the PHEV the brawniest car it offers. That would be like BMW waiting to throw a hybrid on its coming X7 and putting it at the top of the heap. BMW does have a 740e sedan on the way, but it’s only a skosh more powerful than the 740Li, and it’s the slowest in the range. For a tangelos-to-oranges comparison, the EPA rates the five-seat hybrid BMX X5 xDrive 540e at 56 mpg-e and 24 combined mpg, the seven-seat XC90 T8 is rated at 53 mpg-e and 25 combined mpg. The BMW has 308 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, the Volvo has 92 more ponies and 140 more torques, and a design finer than cut crystal. Advantage, Sverige.

Other resounding proclamations have been made outside the hybrid sphere. In 2015 Volvo purchased its performance partner Polestar, then announced it was going racing in the World Touring Car Championship and selling Polestar performance parts at US dealers. When we asked Polestar’s marketing director if the racing charge meant Volvo wanted to be synonymous with something beyond safety, he said, “There is no contradiction between our focus on performance and the Volvo brand – there has never been a Volvo with so much physical grip as the V60 Polestar, so you could say that this is the safest Volvo ever.” It was answer somehow as obscure, yet as reassuring and valid, as The Chewbacca Defense. Once past the obscurantism, what it means for us is more exciting Volvos.

Then came the XC90 Excellence, a Volvo that costs $105,895. That is not merely a public statement, that’s grandiloquent braggadocio. And it’s all that needs to be said about the company’s leather-and-hide intentions.

Volvo won’t admit it outright – and we’ve asked numerous times – but what we’re being groomed for is a whole new Volvo, one finally ready to emerge from the shadow of milquetoast, long-in-the-tooth US offerings. It’s aiming to do that with power, efficiency, and frugality for the adults, with hot hatches and sedans for the car-loving little kids lurking inside those adults, all delivered in ravishing designs. The brand that once cornered the market perception for three-box safety now wants to steal our rationality and our hearts and our senses. Having seen the new V90 wagon, it just might do it – making “Highway Robbery” only the beginning.