In July 2017, a press release took the internet by storm. Its headline? “Volvo Cars to Go All Electric.” It seems many people didn’t read the details, as the clickbait title sparked an avalanche of breathless, erroneous stories on how Volvo was ditching internal combustion. The truth is that Volvo’s kiss-off to the oil industry is rather timid, at least for now. The Geely-owned company simply stated that every Volvo launched from 2019 onward will carry some level of electrification, running from mild hybridization to fully electric, a move that doesn’t remotely signal the death of the internal-combustion engine. Now Volvo’s marketing team is at it again. Every one of its models will be limited to 112 mph starting with the 2021 model year. While this won’t lead to any misreporting, it’s a headline-grabbing play that’s far more about marketing than actual safety.
Outside of Germany, how many people have actually driven an automobile over 100 mph? I bet if you took a poll among every driver you know, the results would show it to be an extremely small number. And how many accidents or serious injuries are more severe because a driver crashed at 115 mph instead of, say, 95 mph? It seems Volvo doesn’t care if people like me question this 112-mph limiter charade. In a recent story we published, Volvo’s CEO, Håkan Samuelsson, admits that the company may lose some performance-oriented customers. But in the end, he feels that Volvo will likely gain more business. Fine. But I wonder if it should instead concentrate on the other, more tangible routes it takes to improve safety. Volvo continues to work extremely hard in the area of automotive safety, where it has been a leader for decades. But I see simpler, more honest ways for Volvo to improve safety. All it needs to do is look around its headquarters in Sweden and draw inspiration from the famously simple and focused Scandinavian approach to design.
When I travel to Sweden, I find extremely intuitive design throughout the country. When reaching for a light switch in a dark bathroom of a hotel room, for instance, it’s right where it should be. There’s no need to think; it’s just there. It’s the same with the general layout in restaurants and buildings, the typography and content of road signs, and in pretty much every aspect of the northern European country. In Sweden, if something isn’t needed, it’s usually not there.
Sadly, I don’t find that same design theme inside modern Volvo. Yes, the cabins look pleasant with an impressive balance of wood, leather and textiles but the touchscreen layout and the overall lack of hard buttons doesn’t jibe with proper Scandinavian design as I’ve come to appreciate it. For instance, there are no dedicated hard buttons for commonly used features such as heated seats or the heated steering wheel or even temperature and ‘auto’ for the climate control. The only knobs or buttons near the touchscreen are for the hazard lights, the front defrost, the rear defrost, play/pause, volume, track forward/back, plus a Home button. The lack of fixed controls is distracting. Requiring multiple presses of a touchscreen to adjust the interior temperature isn’t simple. Owners will grow accustomed to certain aspects of the layout, but Volvo would improve safety on a higher level if it dealt with the distractions of complicated touchscreen controls instead of fitting a 112-mph limiter and standing on its soapbox about it. The company actually mentions distraction in the speed-limiter press release: “Drivers distracted by their mobile phones or otherwise not fully engaged in driving . . .” Smartphones are a huge issue, but they’re not the elephant in this particular room.
To be fair, complicated controls aren’t remotely exclusive to Volvo. I don’t have the space to list all the examples and you (rightly) don’t have the patience to read it. But a couple of vehicles that pop into my mind are both large luxury vehicles—the Audi A8 and Lexus LS. Multiple times during recent drives of both sedans, I struggled to figure out how to make simple adjustments—and I consider myself adept at operating new and new-to-me technologies.
There are simply too many distracting features being installed in modern automobiles. I support advancements and new technologies, but automobile manufacturers need to take a long, hard look from a holistic perspective. If a new feature causes distraction from the task at hand—driving—then it shouldn’t be fitted. New tech helps sell vehicles but there’s a responsibility that companies must take seriously. Of course, they also need to come up with tangible ways to stand a product apart from the competition. But safety comes first. And a 112-mph speed limiter isn’t the answer no matter how many headlines it grabs.