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The mind-bending design behind Volvo’s new self-driving concept car

Fast Company went inside Volvo’s innovation lab in Gothenburg, Sweden, to learn how the carmaker is using sound waves to solve one the industry’s thorniest design challenges.

The mind-bending design behind Volvo’s new self-driving concept car
[Image: Volvo]
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Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but reimagining the automobile for a self-driving world is no simple feat. How do you recreate the natural interaction between human drivers and pedestrians? Can a speeding, multi-ton hunk of metal ever by truly safe for the passengers within? And, more urgently, can any of this be accomplished using present-day technology?

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Fast Company sent a team to Gothenburg, Sweden, to visit the Volvo innovation lab where teams of designers and engineers are tackling these obstacles, using emerging tech to find creative solutions to the infinitely complex self-driving problem.

Central to the mission is the Volvo 360c, an autonomous, glass-domed concept car that Volvo engineers have equipped with special speakers to communicate information to passengers and pedestrians alike. The research project, dubbed Sonic Interaction in Intelligent Cars (SIIC), aims to resolve one of the biggest issues with electric cars: they are almost entirely silent. What they found was a major opportunity to build rider trust by reproducing the auditory experience of the classic, gas-guzzling combustion engine.

WATCH: Volvo is creating the safest self-driving car with sound and gaming technology

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The Volvo team studied sounds from both the automotive and gaming worlds to generate three different sound behaviors based on testing with real people both in VR settings and on test tracks. The acceleration, for instance, can sound slightly different for someone who wants the straightforward tones of the car at work; or a softer, more cautious and reassuring tone; or a third that has a more entertaining and fun sound profile. (Imagine a reverberating, space-age metallic hum.) But they’re all specific to their use case. “Sound could be a powerful tool to show the car’s intention,” says Fredrik Hagman, senior sound designer at Volvo Cars.

Just as important, Hagman explains, sounds can be used to communicate information about the outside world—and to broadcast the car’s intentions. Brief, repeated crescendos similar to what you might hear when you turn on your computer for the first time can indicate a lane change, for instance, or prevent motion sickness by warning passengers of an upcoming maneuver, such as a sharp turn. Sounds can also alert nearby pedestrians, basically replacing the manual nods and waves you might make yourself as a driver. “We’ve used sounds to almost give the car a voice,” says Hagman.

The video above is the first in a new Fast Company series called Innovation Labs, in which we’ll be taking an inside look at the most exciting, innovative, and compelling research labs around the world, and talking to the business leaders and creatives that make them run. Watch this space for more.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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