Volvo Cars doesn’t carry the weight of a global powerhouse like Volkswagen, Ford, or Toyota, but it’s no niche automaker either, and it has been one of the most ambitious when it comes to riding the technology waves of the 2020s.
Volvo Cars aims to be one of the quickest legacy automakers to transition to 100% electric vehicle sales. Within 4 years, in 2025 if not sooner, Volvo Cars expects 50% of its sales to be sales of fully electric vehicles. By 2030, the commitment is 100% electric. That’s not 100% electrified (meaning: some full electrics, some plugin hybrids, and some conventional hybrids), and it’s not 100% electric versions being available for every model. Volvo Cars is committed to every single vehicle it produces and sells being 100% electric within 9 years.
That’s half of the automotive tech transition that is now well underway in the 2020s. The other half is about turning cars into software-based supercomputers on wheels (and eventually fully autonomous ones). On this second half of the tech transition, Volvo Cars is also intent on changing quicker than others.
NVIDIA is happy, as it’s a core technology partner. “All roads to the future of autonomous, electric and connected transportation run through one key innovation: software-defined, centralized computing,” NVIDIA confidently summarizes. “With a software-defined architecture, cars will no longer be at their best when they leave the factory, but rather constantly improving through over-the-air updates. This flexibility will even allow automakers to develop vehicles and experiences that are customizable for each customer.” Indeed. I look forward to seeing Volvo & NVIDIA’s implementation of this in a few years. How advanced will its infotainment and semi-autonomous driving tech get?
I’ll be a bit more frank than usual here — the infotainment on all legacy automaker vehicles is embarrassing, in my opinion. I get it — it’s super hard for a large, established industry that has little threat of disruptive startups to move dramatically and rapidly. Turning cars into computers on wheels built in large part by high-level software teams is like closing down your business and starting a mostly different one. Nonetheless, it’s 2021, and considering what we all have available on our phones, as well as the infotainment package Tesla has put together, I expect a new car to have a large screen that integrates with many of our favorite platforms — YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, perhaps even a good email (Gmail) interface, and a good web browser for other things. Chinese “smart EV” startups Xpeng and NIO saw where things were going and have created excellent options. Otherwise, though, consumers are lacking in choice if they want a car with a modern-looking and useful infotainment package. I hope this early hype from Volvo Cars and NVIDIA indicate that Volvo vehicles will catch up on this side of things in a few years.
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Of course, there’s more to a holistic computer-based car than infotainment. “Cars on the road today are powered by tens of electronic control units (ECUs) distributed throughout the vehicle. Each ECU controls a specific function such as power windows or the infotainment system. This structure requires long development cycles and can be incredibly complicated to update as new technology emerges,” NVIDIA writes.
“Volvo Cars is aiming to create a ‘computer on wheels’ for its next generation of vehicles, consolidating these ECUs into one centralized architecture. This system will be built on NVIDIA DRIVE Orin, the industry’s most advanced, functionally safe and secure, software-defined autonomous vehicle computing platform.”
I got George Hotz talked about this a bit in 2017 at a conference in Paris. Catch that here or here:
It has taken a few years, but Volvo Cars and NVIDIA make it clear that some automakers are starting to see why cars need to be be advanced, centralized computer systems rather than a dozen or two small computer systems for individual tasks like opening windows or loading up Android Auto & Apple CarPlay. Interestingly, the car companies that seem to be more eagerly pursuing this now also seem to be more aggressively transitioning to an electric future. Volkswagen is another one that comes to mind.
Back to Volvo Cars: “The core computing system, which will be introduced on a model to be unveiled in 2022, is made up of three main computers. These support each other in operating vision processing and artificial intelligence, general computing and infotainment respectively. …
“With NVIDIA DRIVE Orin at the core of Volvo Cars’ vehicles, the aim is to continue be safer and more personal over time via over-the-air updates, while maintaining enough compute headroom to power vision and sensor processing.”
Everything I’ve seen from Volvo Cars in the past year says to me that the Swedish carmaker renowned for its historical leadership on safety is now intent on becoming a leader in a cleaner, more software-focused, high-tech future. A few years ago, when longtime CleanTechnica writer and auto industry insider Jo Borrás was super bullish on Volvo, I was quietly skeptical (and maybe sometimes not quietly so). After all, while other automakers were offering fully electric vehicles, Volvo Cars was still offering only quite lame and bland plugin hybrids. Was there really much going on behind the scenes that would pull Volvo out of its slow-walk into the future and show it leapfrogging into a leadership position? Apparently, there was.
“The core system is a computing powerhouse developed with our guiding star of safety first,” says Patrik Bengtsson, vice president of vehicle software and electronics at Volvo Cars. “We believe in partnering with technology leaders, which is why we’re collaborating with NVIDIA.”
“By developing software in-house we can boost development speeds and improve your Volvo faster than we can today,” said Henrik Green, chief technology officer. “Just like on your smartphone or computer, new software and features can be rolled out swiftly through over-the-air updates, making your Volvo better and even more enjoyable over time.”
Kudos to you. And, no doubt, much thanks is owed to NVIDIA for stepping up and holding automakers’ hands as they get a grip on this newfangled tech and related opportunities in the auto world.
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