Technology at your fingertips

As the lines between mobile phone and car technology blur, the result is an ever more intuitive experience, says Volvo Cars innovation manager Andreas Ropel.


Andreas Ropel

“I’ve built my own smart house,” says Andreas Ropel, innovation manager at Volvo Cars. “Everything is connected. The lights, the doors, the heating. I control it all from an app on my phone, or even using Siri.”

This kind of seamless interaction with technology is the key to making it useful, says Andreas. And his job at Volvo Cars is to make the interfaces in its vehicles as intuitive as your phone. The new XC40, for example, has the computing power to do things the average laptop wouldn’t have been capable of a few years ago. Yet a simple swipe, touch or voice command is often all you need to get something done.

The starting point, as always with Volvo Cars, is people. “We watch, listen and learn from people,” Andreas says. “For the XC40 we hosted customer clinics in Sweden, China, Germany and the US, testing new functionality and hardware with different kinds of people. We look at everything from the size and colour of the fonts to the feedback you get when you press a button,” he says. “We want to understand how easy it is to perform a task from start to finish, and how intuitive it is.”

Testing is a big part of Andreas’ job. “It’s about making sure things work the way we expect them to,” he says. “It means refining the software and thinking of every possible scenario, so that the customer gets the same effortless experience, every time. There should be no real learning curve – you do something once, maybe twice, and after that it’s second nature.”

Many of the functions in the XC40 are controlled through the centre display with touch screen – a feature shared with Volvo Cars’ larger XC60 and 90 Series cars. It’s designed to reduce distraction, with bold, clear graphics and a portrait format that makes it easy to read information and maps. The screen’s surface is designed to reduce glare, and it’s so responsive you can use it wearing gloves. “The point is that you get what you want from it quickly and with a minimum of effort,” Andreas says.

If the design and functionality of the centre screen has obvious parallels with the way a mobile phone works then that’s no coincidence. “Our mobile devices – whether it’s a phone, tablet or wearable – have become so important to us,” Andreas says. “It’s easy to understand why when they’re so powerful, yet so easy to use. There’s a lot to learn from how people interact with them.”

Inspiration for Andreas and his team comes from what is happening in the wider world – and staying ahead of the latest developments is crucial. “Events such as the Consumer Electronics Show [held in Las Vegas every January] are useful,” says Andreas. “And we look at the latest trends across technology to see if there’s anything out there now, or on the horizon, that might help us find solutions.”

The 12.3-inch digital driver display in the XC40 is a great example of the way that the right technology can give a more personalised, responsive experience. You can choose from different looks and colour schemes to suit your mood, and the brightness automatically adapts to surrounding light so you always get a clear view.

The voice control function in the XC40 is another example of this synergy. It allows you operate climate control, navigation, media and telephone features just by speaking. And because it recognises natural speech there’s no need to memorise a list of set prompts. It makes the XC40 a virtual assistant that can help make things easier, in the same way that you can talk to your phone to search the internet, open an app, dictate a message or make a reservation for dinner. Or, as in Andreas Ropel’s house, switch the lights off when you go to bed.