How autonomous cars pose a threat to airlines

Volvo's concept car 360c offers vision of a luxurious room on wheels, driven by AI

Car companies have always given their designers and engineers a great degree of freedom to dream when they aren’t working directly on a new production model. Since its major revival under Chinese owner Zhejiang Geely Holding, Volvo’s design and engineering teams have had little time to dream. Until recently.

The end result is a vision of marrying advances in autonomous driving and motoring to offer an alternative to short-haul flights. True, it has always been the case that taking the car has been an option for European and US travellers, but not in the way conceived by Volvo’s 360c.

At the unveiling of the vehicle at the headquarters of Volvo Cars in Gothenburg, senior management explained that the auto industry is still unsure where autonomous driving is heading, but the conversation needed to start.

Volvo says it is eyeing the multibillion-dollar domestic air travel industry with its holistic 360c, particularly for journeys of less than 300km. “The business will change in the coming years and Volvo should lead that change of our industry,” said Hakan Samuelsson, president and chief executive 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.”


Domestic flights

A spokesman cited the fact that last year in the United States more than 740 million travellers took domestic flights, making America’s domestic air travel industry 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, have been proven to be more time-consuming by air than by car when you factor in 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.

Volvo’s tag line for the 360c is: “Why fly when you can be driven?” It sounds ridiculous but air travel, especially for frequent travellers, is far from glamorous. And apart from the in-air time, add on the time needed to get to and from the airport, the time lost queuing at security, the usual forced march through all the ‘retail opportunities’ and then throw in a tight connection and it seems sensible to consider alternative options.

The hook for Volvo’s concept is the notion that the 360c would be able to collect you from your door and drop you to exactly where you want to go. No stress, no small talk and no driving while tired. Night-time travel would be the answer to longer journeys as the adaptable business class-like cabin can be configured for sleeping.

In keeping with its reputation for a focus on safety, Volvo says it is working on a safety blanket that will remain loose and comfortable most of the time but then act like safety belt and tension tight if an imminent collision is anticipated. At present, however, the blanket is still a work in progress. If they can create it, long-haul airlines will undoubtedly be interested as well.

Safety is an area where Volvo can boast a perceived competitive advantage over rivals. After decades of earning a reputation for a fixation on safety – often at the expense of being perceived as boring and dull – now with so much upheaval and new technology, this perceived trait is exactly what consumers are looking for in order to provide some sort of reassurance at a time of uncertainty.

In many ways the 360c is a blank canvas, a luxurious room on wheels, driven by artificial intelligence with safety as its priority. It’s a connected car – is it connected not only to the internet but also to any vehicles around it.

Its designer, Robin Page, points out that historically car size was dictated by the width of two horses and over time that led to what we accept as our road layout and lane size. With the 360c, its electric power train means there is no engine, just a couple of electric motors. No driving controls are needed and this allows the cabin to be configured in a multitude of ways; conventionally in two or three rows of seats or in an office layout or bedroom.

The sleeper format might be great some days but the party layout is fun too. There is, of course, a pop-up widescreen television but also the entire glazed area can display video too. You can even select certain smells such as flowers, for example, as moving images of flowers appear all around you; handy if you don’t like seeing the grim reality of motorway verges and industrial parks that provide the vistas for most people’s journeys these days.

The 360c communicates with other vehicles in its 360-degree radius, hence the name. A light bar encircles the car and sends directed light signals to other road users alerting them to its intended track, travel and braking status. The 360c doesn’t try to instruct other road users on what to do, that would require massive processing power and mind-reading ability. Instead it simply informs other road users of its status and what it is doing and its upcoming intentions.

Using essentially a future twist on the car horn with a greater tonal range, the 360c emits generated sounds that can be directed with great directional precision, making interaction with other road users incredibly safe. Clever use of low frequencies and other highly selective sounds will give these indications in harmony with lighting indications.

Work-life balance

Volvo with the 360c wants people to reimagine their commute and work-life balance. Autonomous cars could make the act of driving redundant and free up all that time and attention to do other things. It would be a greener mode of transport too as the machine’s processing power and connected ability could ensure the most efficient times and routes to travel.

Another upside to letting the machines take over is the potential to makes cities less congested. The workforce could choose to live further from their workplace – as the journey to the office would be an active part of the workday – and this would ease house price inflation in urban areas. Volvo also suggests that companies could lure candidates with the offer the services of a 360c as a perk.

“The 360c explores what becomes possible when we remove the human driver, using new freedoms in design and recapturing time – it’s a glimpse at how autonomous drive technology will change the world as we know it. The possibilities are mind-boggling,” said Marten Levenstam, senior vice-president of corporate strategy at Volvo Cars.

Of course this is all relatively idealistic, the futuristic daydreams of engineers granted time to dream. In reality, massive challenges remain and it’s unlikely to be as Utopian as Volvo predicts. Yet there are undoubted opportunities available on the back of autonomous driving technology, opening the way for engineers to really explore a future unshackled from the current physical and technological boundaries that have led to our current transportation systems and infrastructures, both on the ground and the air. Heady times ahead.