Less a car and more an iPad on wheels

imageNeil Lyndon tries to make sense of Volvo’s new range of in-car gadgetry .

Karl Benz (1844-1929) was not in a position to attend the recent event at which Volvo paraded its latest cars. But, if he had been looking down from automotive Valhalla, the inventor of the motor car might have wondered what they were talking about.

Instead of discussions of transmission systems, cooling methods, fuel delivery or any other problems that Benz overcame in obtaining propulsion from an internal combustion engine, this event concentrated on such features as a new Volvo’s ability to find a restaurant in a town you are visiting and secure a table before you arrive.

Instead of hearing about brakes and spring rates, we heard about this car’s power to detect that you are driving in heavily congested traffic and block incoming telephone calls, making sure you keep your mind on your driving. Instead of analysis of a Volvo’s cornering capability, we heard about its facility to notice if you are nodding off and to set you a quiz to wake you up.

This, then, is a notable moment in history. It is the first time since Benz’s intrepid wife, Bertha, drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 1888, to prove the competence of her husband’s invention, that a motor car has ceased to be treated primarily as a form of transport but is being promoted as a kind of mobile iPad room.

Sensus is Volvo’s new “interactive entertainment and information system”. Currently available on the 2012 S60, XC60 and XC70 (though soon an option throughout the range), it is an on-board operating system that brings together the controls for satnav, Bluetooth, audio and car settings.

If you hook Sensus up with an iPhone or Android, you can trace your car on a map and find out where you left it. On a cold day, you can start up the seat heaters from a distance. You can even get the system to run an eye over the car, see if anything is in need of repair or replacement and book an appointment at your garage.

As with an iPhone, I could make sense of about a 1,000th of the system’s capability when I tested the new Volvo range. After a few minutes of drumming my fingers on the touch-screen, I was at the end of my tether and would have been happy to settle down in the back with a book.

When it wasn’t showing off Sensus, Volvo was telling us about its commitment to sailing. This highly expensive allegiance extends from beginners in Toppers at their local clubs all the way through to Olympic sailors (Volvo will be lead sponsor of the sailing events at next year’s Olympics) and around-the-world yachtsmen. This commitment produces solid commercial returns, since apparently a sailor in Britain is “seven times more likely than a man in the street” to buy a Volvo.

To bring the point to life, Volvo took us out on the Solent on their Ocean Racers and challenged us to race from Hamble to Cowes and back again. It was a wonderful way to spend a day, but what it had to do with cars I would struggle to say. Perhaps a Sensus could tell us.

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