Håkan Ivarsson, Volvo Car Corp.’s Technical Programs’ Director, stood next to the all-new XC90 during the car's global introduction and said: “This car represents the future of Volvo cars. It is the starting point.”
It is a big statement (by European standards) about a big car, and it means that everything coming out of the Chinese-owned Swedish automaker will help accelerate Volvo into a new technology and market sector in which the words “quality” and “premium” are not just lightly used sales tags.
The XC90 joins a crowded market, so what differentiates it from its competitors? Ivarsson explained: “This is not a pure engineering answer; it has to be cool—and it is!" That "coolness," he explained, includes the vehicle's exterior and interior designs. Underpinning the new SUV is Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis that greater levels of ride comfort, handling, and, importantly, fine steering feel. (See http://articles.sae.org/12739/.)
Other new technologies include Volvo's industry-exclusive ‘Run off-road’ protection safety system and its human-machine interface (HMI) technology that features a 9-in central display screen and connectivity. The XC90 design and engineering teams had a basic mantra for the car: simplify and digitalize.
Mixed materials, 4-cylinders only
“Simplify” even applies to the vehicle's powertrains. All use the new family of Drive-E 2.0-L 4-cylinder units that include gasoline, diesel, turbocharged, supercharged, and hybrid applications.
“We really didn’t want different size powertrains when setting up a car like this,” Ivarsson noted. “It’s a big advantage and means we have one engine bay design for all versions of the car, allowing us to optimize everything, with no need for the compromises that different engine sizes would make necessary.”
But that doesn’t mean the car was easy to create. Every part of the XC90 is “more or less” new, said Ivarsson. And that means that every aspect, such as its new electrical architecture, had to be individually integrated.
The car’s gestation period was lengthy, not through any fault of the design but because shortly after its concept, company ownership changed from Ford to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Remarkably the original XC90 remained in production for 12 years, a run that included refreshening. The new generation car is likely to have a seven-year production run.
“The most important decision – to go for a 4-cylinder-only strategy for its replacement – was taken in 2009 at the time of the Ford-to-Geely transition period,” explained Ivarsson. “The actual decision was taken by Ford and they also decided that the engines should be of wholly Volvo design and not off-the-shelf Ford units. But we could not give the project momentum until that transition was complete.”
Although the 2016-model XC90 is 140 mm (5.5 in) longer than its predecessor, it is also 150 kg (33 lb) lighter when comparing base models. Some of the mass reduction comes from moving to the 4-cylinder strategy, to be sure. But much of it is due to engineering a mixed-materials structure, even while competitors have taken the aluminum-intensive path—Land Rover took some 420 kg (925 lb) out of the latest AL-intensive Range Rover, for example.
“To have gone mainly aluminum we would have had to replace almost all production processes," Ivarsson explained. "With a project like the XC90 with so much new already, to have added an aluminum structure would have been a huge step." The vehicle makes extensive use of high-strength steels (HSS) with aluminum for some areas including bumpers, spring towers and the crash box. The IP and cross-vehicle structure feature aluminum and magnesium.
The new XC90 took five years from concept to SOP but with it Volvo was doing “everything new in one step,” Ivarsson said. Such a radical approach was expensive and there was the added complexity of incorporating a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) into the range.
Was Volvo prepared to take a financial loss on that for the sake of image and environmental responsibility? “No, we certainly do not take a loss on the hybrid,” asserted Ivarsson.
Toward automated and autonomous driving
Much of the new XC90 will form the basis for many forthcoming Volvo models, Ivarsson said, including technologies that could be licensed to other makers.
Volvo is a serious player in automated- and autonomous-driving development. But when it will become a production reality and legally acceptable is the big question.
“We say about 2020," Ivarsson hinted. "But of course it depends on infrastructure, associated product development and on legislation. It is not a case of what we can do, but whether it will be allowable. Yes, we are confident it will happen, so we will introduce test fleets next year.”
These will be made up of about 100 cars, and there will be updated infrastructure in Sweden with which they will collate. But patience is needed; Ivarsson reckons it will take 20 years to replace most of the cars on the road so they can connect with each other.
But he qualified that statement by saying that over the next few years this would depend on what level of specification a car is prepared for, and how "future-proofed" and integrated its systems would be for autonomous application.
“Whatever happens, it will take a long time to reach very large numbers of autonomous vehicles on the roads; the changeover time will be lengthy," he offered. "For example, our City Safety system was introduced in 2008 but not all new cars from other manufacturers on the market yet have the technology.”
Expanding open-platform philosophies will help to update cars as the autonomous world approaches, Ivarsson maintains. This already facilitates updating some infotainment and GPS systems. Updating all systems in a car that has an open platform facility might eventually be possible, though, and this could be extended to several aspects of the vehicle.
“It is certainly possible that a car owner could load new software at home by themselves but of course not any associated hardware," he said. "Certainly we are thinking about this in the context of current mobile phone updating.”
Ivarsson does not believe that with continuing rapid technology change it would be possible for a manufacturer to install certain systems that would remain up to date throughout the manufacturing run (typically seven years) of a model.