Safety in the modern era Cars are no longer just a matter of engineering. It’s a technical and software-based design challenge that hinges on a clear and intuitive user experience for drivers.
So how does Volvo, a company synonymous with safety, convince customers that it is innovative, forward-thinking and smart without giving up on its core safety mission? The bets: Either Volvo will keep pace with the pace of change in this brave new world or risk its reputation as the automaker most closely associated with safety.
Hints on how Volvo intends to get into that sweet spot of agile, innovative and safe can be found in its approach to going public – it is taking the traditional IPO route – and its future vehicle plans. By contrast, its spin-off brother, Polestar, is going public through a merger with a blank check company and has tried to position itself as an intelligent leader in technology and design.
Polestar’s approach inadvertently helps Volvo distinguish itself as the most prudent company in safety. It also sets up Volvo for differentiation, but with access to the latest proven innovations in Polestar models.
“I think what we’re seeing is a shift in the industry like we’ve been in the mobile industry for some time, where new capabilities are emerging and new capabilities and new sensors, so I think it’s a really interesting area,” said Thomas Stovicek, Head of UX for Volvo. “At the same time, it can provide a great deal of complexity to the user, so when we talk about user experience, we often talk about usability for the customer and understanding the issues as they put them into the environment in the car.”
But even a brand that is at the forefront of safety can have setbacks. Modern vehicle safety extends beyond the vehicle to the vast amounts of data required to operate these systems. Volvo announced on Friday that some of its research and development data had been stolen in a security breach. The company was quick to address safety concerns in a statement, “Volvo does not consider, with the information currently available, this to have an impact on the safety or security of its customers’ cars or their personal data.”
Olaf vs. Elsa
Polestar charts a different path when defining the company’s identity, Volvo is “centric about safety and independence” while Polestar “centric about technology and performance”. Volvo is also “Safe and Responsible” and Polestar “Sustainable and Progressive.”
Polar Star is cool and simple. Being in a Volvo is a lot like a warm safety blanket. To continue the Scandinavian metaphor, consider the plot of Frozen: Volvo exudes Olaf’s laid-back charisma while Polestar is ice queen Elsa.
Volvo’s strategy has been to proceed with caution, which is at odds with how its sister brand, Polestar, has developed.
For example, although Volvo co-developed the Android Automotive operating system with Google, the Polestar brand introduced the system first, and later made headlines like “Polestar Wants to Make Electric Cars in a Way Volvo Can’t”.
Polestar as a newcomer, still relatively young, selling around 10,000 cars a year to half a million Volvos, is looking to make a name for itself.
A Polestar spokesperson wrote in an email: “Polestar is and will be the technology leader for the larger group.” One good example already on the market is Google’s infotainment system: it debuted on the Polestar 2; Then Volvo followed up with a recharge of the XC40 and now the XC60. You’ll see more of that in the coming years as new technologies come out – first Polestar, then Volvo.”
lighten the burden
Contrary to Polestar’s forward-thinking message, when it comes to customer-facing technology, Volvo has transformed the in-car experience into much less. This system also supports the emergence of Android Automotive OS.
Volvo wants the system to ease the cognitive burden on the driver, and is hiring behavioral psychologists on the research team to understand how information varies from person to person.
“I think on a high-level principle, we’re trying to simplify this complexity and present that in a way to the users,” Stovicek says. “There is a lot that can be done. Zero collision is something we are striving for and I think there are a lot of interesting things to do with the new capabilities that are coming in platforms.”
This means less loud, noisy and distracting notifications, unless they are used to alert the driver of an emergency. A Volvo spokesperson said: “It’s not about masking features per se, but about simplifying the user experience and reducing driver distractions.
Volvo Cars designs and develops everything around the person who uses it – not around the technology – and strives for a user experience that is as intuitive as possible.”
For years, as screens creep into cars, automakers have thrown the kitchen sink into the infotainment control suite. When the Volvo XC90 was first introduced, it was among the first group of automakers to make the screen standard using the older Sensus OS. The brand is now distilling the information it provides to the driver. They tasked NVIDIA with collecting anonymous security data on input sensors, radar, and cameras that required graphical processing to improve their understanding.
On a recent engine for the Volvo XC60, I noticed that the infotainment screen was streamlined and brighter than the previous generation. I also noticed that the wireless charging system didn’t turn on easily. I had to open settings to activate it. The least immediate option on display is the antithesis of new cars over the past decade.
Over the decades, Volvo has doubled its reputation for making the safest cars on the road. When Volvo makes claims about its safety record, it’s a reputation it’s earned through the company’s research and development.
In 1959, seat belts. In 1972, a rear-facing car seat appeared, followed by a booster seat in 1978. Side collision protection was introduced in 1994. This was followed by Collision Avoidance System and then Pedestrian Protection in 2008. That same year, Volvo set a goal that no one should have be seriously injured in their cars. In 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New Vehicle Assessment Program gave 11 Volvo vehicles the highest safety rating.
What automakers are facing is their customers’ desire to effectively bypass their onboard system by using the least safe aspect of driving: personal smartphones. Volvo prioritizes ways to keep devices out of the hands of consumers.
“Users were using their mobile phones in order to achieve certain functions that we weren’t offering in the car which created such an unsafe environment that we wanted to avoid,” said Annika Adolfsson, Assistant Head of UX & Event at Design Volvo Cars. .
This solution is integrated into the Android Automotive architecture to accommodate third-party applications and a platform that will be safe to use while driving.
Volvo has worked with the Android, Google Maps, Google Assistant and Google Play Stories teams, and the results are coming out in a clean, simple experience. “The most interesting thing about the products we have developed is that it is a platform that will last for a long time,” says Adolfsson.
Volvo also deals with futuristic safety by intervening as soon as the driver gets into the car.
“We tried to think about how someone would experience getting into the car for the first time and how we could help them,” Adolfsson said. “On our previous cars, you had to go and find the settings.”
Often times, examples that show safety and technological advancement are not always the same, especially when it comes to human judgment.
Here’s where things get sticky. Search for “Tesla and self-driving accident.” Despite Tesla’s reputation for risk taking, it did not affect the astronomical value of the company. (It should be noted that Tesla still gets high marks for safety from Model 3 crashes.)
Tesla and Volvo, like all automakers, are on their way to incorporating more ADAS functionality into future products to be on the cutting edge. But the integration of new technology is not always in line with consumer confidence and a general sense of security.
Only one in 10 drivers will feel comfortable in a fully self-driving car, according to a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“Recent consumer surveys show that Volvo is the most trusted automaker to safely deliver autonomy,” Volvo says on its website. The company writes that it is a few years away from a fully autonomous vehicle.
What Volvo is betting on is its ability to convince its customers that it can be early for autonomous driving systems and safer than ever before, all while also convincing consumers that it can be a leader in the electric car industry. To get there, work is done with caution for good reason.
Of course, this thinking begs the question: Why should the technology that will ultimately make roads safer be called technology first? It’s an interesting puzzle about what it means to play it safe.