Interview with Andreas Nilsson

Cast your mind back to last year's Shanghai Motor Show and you'll surely remember Volvo's arresting Concept Universe. Andreas Nilsson, Volvo's young and enterprising Design Director - Strategic and Interaction, was the man behind it. Nilsson is a rare specimen in this industry – in thirteen years since leaving Coventry with a Bachelors degree in Transportation Design, he has applied his expertise to only two companies, Volvo and, albeit briefly, Ford. Nilsson's loyalty to Volvo stems from his youth; his father sold Volvos for a living and by the age of ten the young Andreas had set his sights on becoming a designer at Volvo under the titles of Studio Chief Designer and Advanced Concepts Chief Designer before arriving at his current role. We were able to catch up with Andreas at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit where Volvo introduced the XC60 Plug-in Hybrid. While Andreas was not involved for that program, he was responsible for the Concept You that was introduced at the IAA in Frankfurt last year.

Green Car Design : Volvo seems to have a unique hybrid strategy that is different from other car companies. Can you explain the differences?

Andreas Nilsson : We design from the point-of-view of consistency which all started back in 1991 with the ECC. Family resemblance is important to us, the V60 Hybrid Concept downstairs is very similar to the other V60 models. Aside from the drive-train, the concept only differs from the production car by the special use of contrasting colours, aero wheels and other aero devices. Hybrids are a natural part of what we do, we have no plans to develop a specific architecture for them like some other manufacturers. When a new vehicle is designed the hybrid strategy is already in place - the goal is to minimize the impact of the system in the design. For example we try to be clever with the location of the battery package and make sure we are sensitive to crash protection. We also don't want to push our hybrids as technology vehicles, our goal is to offer them to people who chose to be environmentally conscious. We are different because our policy is not to offer hybrids to differentiate us or to literally be noticed, but to provide a choice for our customers.

GCD : Tell us about the XC60 Plug-in Hybrid on the booth stand.

AN : This is our latest concept demonstrating a new drive-train and showcasing our new engine architecture. We launched the diesel version at the Geneva show last year and this is the gas version slated for the United States and China. The drive-train has a 2.0 litre, 280 Horsepower four cylinder coupled to a 70 horsepower electric motor. The end result is a system with power like a V6 but fuel economy like a 4. We estimate 50 miles per gallon but of course the ratings systems are different all around the world.

GCD : Wow, 50 mpg from a large SUV.

AN : Don't forget it also does 0-60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds so it is not a slow car.

GCD : It is really an interesting colour.

AN : All of our hybrid concept cars are white - that is a constant to reinforce the message. But this one is different, a semi-matte white. Colouring and materials are very important. [For example] We have taken the blue accent from the outside and brought it into the inside. The instrument panel is also leather wrapped.

GCD : The wheels are striking as well. Why do Volvo wheels look so different from other manufacturers?

AN : We have a special design group that does nothing but wheels. They are really on the ball and constantly pushing the envelope.  Because of our architecture we are limited on depth, so they have to be dramatic and are always pushing to get new designs and appearances. On the Concept the wheels are highly polished and have are inserts between the spokes. the inserts are located only towards the outside of the wheels because the rotational speeds there are higher and that is where they provide the most benefit.

GCD : Most hybrid systems try hard to be transparent but Volvo's system offers the driver a choice between which mode they use. Why was this decision taken?

AN : Volvo's are designed around you, the driver. Having the choice between all the modes available allows you to plan your travels and helps get rid of range anxiety. You can save your electricity for later if you want by the push to conserve button. This allows you to have zero emission when you want. You can leave your home in the country, have the extra power for the twisty bits, then go to full electric when you reach the city to be more environmentally friendly.

GCD : You have had an interesting career, starting at Volvo, then Ford bought Volvo, then a stint in the United States with Ford and then back to Volvo. What were the biggest changes you had to go through to adapt?

AN : When Ford first bought Volvo right about the time I started things changed. Ford was known for implementing a lot of rules, they were known for their control systems. Many people said "it must be awful" but those systems are there to protect the company. When I got to Ford I realized that they were used to working with <the rules> and had figured ways to work around them. The problem at Volvo was that those rules killed creativity because the culture dictated that you follow the rules.

GCD : That had to be difficult, was it hard going from a small company like Volvo to a large one like Ford?

AN : Yes, Ford is a big company but it is like an iceberg, the top of iceberg is same size regardless of what sits under the water. As a designer you are privileged to work and interact with the top of the organization so going from Volvo to ford at first did not make much of a difference. Then, oh my god, when you travel and see all the plants you realize how big they are. Ford is so big and the frequency of new model launches is so often, they struggle to find a clear space to launch a new car. Volvo is different - there you have to struggle to find something to introduce. Another thing is that Volvo has one brand message but Lincoln, Mercury, Ford was not really one brand. In fact even Ford is a brand with many different nameplates like Mustang and F150. So a Design DNA study for Ford is almost impossible.

GCD : Speaking of changes, how are things now that Peter Horbury (former Design Director) has left and Thomas Ingenlath has replaced him?

Peter Horbury (left) and new Design Director Thomas Ingenlath (right)

AN : There is nothing to say as no one has replaced Peter's position yet.  If he is the guy, they usually he will probably want to make a statement or shake the system to see if its rigid.  There is an exciting time ahead of us - we have recently launched a new brand strategy at Volvo, "Designed Around You" with the three pillars of Scandinavian Luxury, Created Around People and Strength In Every Sense.  The biggest issue any new director will face in the future has to do with the legacy - how design will take care of it and respect it.

GCD : What other things are you looking forward to on the environmentally friendly side of car design?

AN : Well I think we will see a paradigm shift in body design, stamped steel bodies limits the shapes you can manufacture. Carbon fibre brings new possibilities but today at a cost consumers are not yet ready for. Most car companies have their production facilities' investments tied up in metal fabrication which will limit how fast they can embrace the future. The idea has been tumbling around for years. We do see some smaller companies trying it and we will have to look into it. One exciting area of research are new battery technologies that also use carbon fibre. With these you can put the carbon fibre battery structure directly into the car's body structure giving a very light weight system. With nano technologies things like this are moving faster and faster and really pushing the boundaries. But for all that to happen the investment still has to make sense.

Frank Schwartz is the main voice behind the thesupplierblog, the spiritual successor to the chromtecblog. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank has spent years working hand in hand with the automotive industry on products as varied as cruise controls, fuel injection systems, exterior lighting, trim components and wheels. Thesupplierblog is intended to be a real-world resource for automotive manufacturers and dealers where open discussion of industry issues is encouraged

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