A few years ago, a small group of colleagues including designers; business- and technical experts at Volvo Trucks came together, united by a belief that the transport industry needed a shake-up. It needed solutions that were more efficient, more cost-effective and more sustainable, but as the small team saw it, this would only be possible by daring to think differently.
By taking the need to reduce customers’ costs as the starting point, the team explored the possibilities offered by automation, connectivity and electromobility and soon devised the concept for Vera; an autonomous, fully electric vehicle that could integrate into more complex logistics systems.
“With Vera, we had the opportunity to help define how an autonomous vehicle would look,” explains Mikael Karlsson, Vice President Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks, and part of the original team that developed Vera. “It needed to look modern, but not so high-tech that it would feel alien or intimidating. This is a functional vehicle with a specific assignment, which needs to be able to integrate as a total solution. So it was important for us that Vera came across as simple, accessible and looked natural in its environment.”
Early on in the process, Mikael Karlsson and his colleagues were focused on their customers’ need for a constant and repetitive transportation flow between A and B, rather than on the vehicle itself. A major inspiration for this holistic approach was the ecosystem, and the aim was to create a constant process throughout both day and night, thereby increasing productivity.
With Vera, we had the opportunity to help define how an autonomous vehicle would look. It was important for us that Vera came across as simple, accessible and looked natural in its environment
In spring 2017, Mikael Karlsson gave the Volvo Trucks’ design studio in Gothenburg the green light to begin designing Vera.
”An important value for us when we created Vera was simplicity. This is a transport solution made by people for people. Even if Vera does not have a driver, it will interact with people in its environment, and was developed to facilitate more effective logistics systems. So one can say that the person we’ve designed it for is actually all of society,” says Ismail Ovacik, Chief Designer Exterior at Volvo Trucks and adds: “We wanted to create something that would set the standard for cab-less vehicles.”
The design team looked far and wide for inspiration, including a lot of futuristic films, such as Oblivion, and carefully inspected items connected to automation and electrification. “Even though there isn’t a direct connection with any other object, part of being a designer is to gather as many impressions for inspiration as possible,” explains Ismail, while pointing towards the big mood board next to him.
“We’ve looked at a lot of hi-tech products like phones, tablets and speakers, and they inspired us in how they integrated the technology. A lot of graphics were actually inspired by the circuit boards. You can find a lot of connection with the warmth of the colours we’ve chosen in everyday products that people use, like furniture.”
Although Ismail and his colleagues worked without any frames of reference, there were a few things they needed to consider, such as legal requirements and technical components that had to be integrated into the design. One of their challenges was that all the technology took up so much space, and that everything from the batteries to the small and large components, wiring and other technologies needed to be hidden inside the shell. Getting the right proportions was something he discussed a lot with his team. Later on, many discussions were also about which design elements to highlight.
“When I look back it is clear that many of our earlier sketches were very sporty compared to the end result. It was important for us to find the right balance, so that Vera looked like a transport vehicle rather than a formula one racing car, a lawnmower, a robotic vacuum cleaner or a remote-controlled car in an amusement park. Altogether we did several hundred sketches, both on paper and on computer, before we got all the details the way we wanted them.”
The design studio at Volvo Trucks in Gothenburg has a high ceiling – in both senses. A large space in the airy rooms is dedicated to spontaneous and open meetings. There are drawing boards, small-scale models, and several mood boards where one can follow Vera’s journey from an idea to reality, where Ismail shares his experiences from the design process.
He explains that he and the other designers have a way of working that invites openness, and that many of the conversations they have had during their work with Vera were crucial factors in their success. He describes the dialogue they enjoyed as “exploring”, where they were all driven by their great curiosity to dare to test new things to move forward.
“We had no other frames of reference so there were many exciting discussions. It has really been a team effort where we did not feel any sense of prestige. We did things together, and there was space for everyone’s ideas. Later it was my job to gather all these thoughts and comments, and summarise the best developed final product,” he explains.
Dealing with challenges during the design process was the norm rather than the exception. In working with Vera, where the design team needed to produce something completely new, close collaboration was very important.
Vera has an honest, clean and functional design that gives an expression of trust and reliability. I feel that we successfully gave it a personality and human expression while bringing out its technical and futuristic elements.
“During the process we designers had to modify our designs, just as the engineering team had to reposition a few parts in order for us to optimise the design. In working with Vera we have challenged each other and often solved problems together,” he says and adds:
“In my eyes, Vera has an honest, clean and functional design that gives an expression of trust and reliability. I feel that we successfully gave it a personality and human expression while bringing out its technical and futuristic elements. The purpose of Vera is to visualise our system for automated transportation, and I feel we have been successful with our assignment.”