Design

The British designer shaping Volvo’s future

Robin Page is the Englishman leading the design of a new generation of Volvo cars. It’s a future that, even to him, feels startling.

WORDS: GAVIN GREEN

Robin Page: Volvo Cars’ British-born head of design

“The 360c concept [which was unveiled last year] was a proposal for a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel,” says Robin Page, Volvo Cars’ Head of Design. “When we first built a car cabin without a steering wheel and conventional car seats, it was an amazing moment. I remember thinking, ‘wow’. The cabin looked so different.”

The revolutionary 360c concept, designed by Robin and his team at Volvo Cars’ Gothenburg HQ, is a fully electric and fully autonomous self-driving car. An alternative both to conventional cars and to short-haul air travel, the 360c has a cabin that can transform from a bed – for comfortable overnight travel – to a sitting room, entertainment space or into a mobile office. There is no steering wheel and no pedals. It is a bold vision for sustainable autonomous transport.

Robin is an expert in car interiors. Before taking the top design job at Volvo Cars in 2017, he was head of interior design. And before moving to Sweden, the Englishman was head of interior design at luxury carmaker Bentley, where duties included designing the interior of the Queen’s Bentley State Limousine.

Car design, notes Robin, is changing more fundamentally now than at any time in his career – and especially interior design. “Not having a steering wheel and a conventional dashboard changes the whole feel of the car cabin. We are heading towards cars with no steering wheels – that’s where we’re aiming.”

Expanding on his vision of how the future could unfold, Robin says that we are facing a radical readjustment in how we will interact with cars. “There are huge design changes afoot, driven mostly by autonomous drive and electrification. But another big change is the way people use cars. Carpooling will become more popular and that can also fundamentally change design.”

Robin explains that Volvo is working with ride-sharing companies on autonomous technologies. “Once autonomous driving becomes reality, Volvo could build two different types of car,” he muses.

The 360c helps shows how in the future Volvo might supply the hardware, including client-specific steering wheel-free cabins, for self-driving car operators. They, in turn, would add their own self-driving software. Easy entry/exit and space would be prioritised.

Electrification will also likely change the design of Volvos. The lack of a bulky front internal combustion engine, more compact powertrains and smaller radiators can mean sleeker front styling and roomier cabins. Underbodies will also be cleaner without exhausts and propshafts. This improves the aerodynamics, crucial for driving range.

“There is even more potential for change in interior design,” notes Robin. “A flat floor with batteries and most of the mechanical and electrical components underneath opens up whole new possibilities, especially in packaging. You no longer have to put seats between tunnels. You can move components around to optimise design. New technology will also make batteries smaller, improving space efficiency.”

“Volvo Cars’ priorities remain the same – being premium, with great design proportions, and increasingly sustainable materials”

One thing won’t change, and that’s Volvo’s unique Scandinavian design philosophy. “Those priorities stay the same,” says Robin. “That means being premium with great design proportions and quality materials – increasingly sustainable materials. It’s also about pure, uncluttered design. It means being human-centric and really caring about people. In the old days that meant seatbelts and airbags. Now it increasingly means autonomous driving functions to improve safety. Then there is the whole Scandinavian approach to wellbeing – to design comfortable, relaxing and reassuring cars that feel very intuitive to drive.

“When I first moved to Sweden my understanding of Scandinavian design was clean product design and architecture that was simple, beautiful and functional,” continues Robin. “When you live here you realise it goes much deeper than that. It’s really about how people care for each other, how products fit into and improve your lifestyle, and there’s a real connection to nature, including sustainability. These principles define our product. That’s where I’ve set the focus for our design team.”