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Here’s what Volvo thinks you’ll do when your car is driving itself

Here’s what Volvo thinks you’ll do when your car is driving itself

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According to Volvo’s research, the average American spends 26 minutes driving to work. One way. That’s more than nine days a year, and the Swedish carmaker is building a time machine to get some of that time back for you.

Well, it’s not actually a time machine (though that would be awesome too). This is Concept 26, Volvo’s vision for what a driver will do while the car is driving itself, unveiled today at the LA Auto Show. It’s very different than futuristic concepts like the Mercedes F 015 which shows a bunch of people facing each other while the car whisks them off to a cocktail party or wherever. The idea is to give you some of that time back from your commute, so you can get some work done, chat on the phone, or watch Game of Thrones — things that people sometimes do during their commute now, but we’ll all have the added benefit of not being in mortal peril while they do so.

Volvo research has shown that most people will use autonomous drive on their way to work, during the boring parts of the commute like stop-and-go traffic on the highway. It’s unlikely that you will have anyone else in the car, just like today, so there’s no need to spin the seat around to face your passengers — which is fine, because the company says most people really don’t want to ride backwards anyway.

The average American spends 26 minutes, each way, driving to work

Concept 26, named after the 26-minute average commute, is pretty close to how the interior of Volvo’s Drive Me program will work, where the company will give 100 autonomous capable XC90 SUVs to real people in its hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.

According to Volvo’s research, vast majorities of car customers believe an autonomous vehicle should still have a steering wheel, and that they should be able to drive the car if they wish. It suggests many Americans might not be totally comfortable with Google’s self-driving pod (current versions have steering wheels for emergencies, but Google has envisioned a future wheel-free model). The company does note that driver acceptance of autonomous cars could increase as they become more popular.

Regardless, Volvo is looking at the near future — the next five to ten years or so — where autonomous cars will probably still have a hard time dealing with things like construction, traffic jams, and snow. So, Volvo says, there needs to be a way for the driver to switch between manual and autonomous mode, and back again. And, maybe most importantly, Volvo says we’ll be really comfortable while we do it.

Volvo’s self-driving car will talk to Volvo’s server’s in the cloud to make sure that it’s safe to go autonomous. If there are concerns about weather or construction or some other reason why autonomous might not work, the system will keep the driver firmly in control. Volvo — which seems to talk about safety more than any other car brand — is emphasizing that it wants to be sure the car is capable of driving itself safely before letting the driver relinquish control. While it didn’t actually come out and say that Tesla was being wildly reckless with its new Autopilot "beta," that was definitely the vibe being given off at a press event last week to preview Concept 26.

Volvo Concept 26

Volvo envisions three different modes for the driver. There’s the normal "Drive" mode, with the car in full manual mode, just like we have now.

Then there’s "Create." This retracts the steering wheel, slides the seat back, and opens a 25-inch flat-screen monitor from the passenger-side dashboard. A "tablet" in the center console slides back with the driver, maintaining access to all car functions like navigation and seating position, as well as giving control of the large monitor. Volvo envisions it as an extension to other devices like laptops or iPads or iPhones. It can be used to display content from those devices, or to watch TV or movies while the car takes care of the driving.

Finally, there’s "Relax" — my personal favorite — that reclines the seat even further and lets the driver watch TV or simply sit back and do nothing. Volvo’s seats have been some of the best in the industry for years, and the Concept 26 includes its next-generation seat which is designed to be outrageously comfortable (and safe, naturally) while reclining. That’s something that hasn’t been particularly important in a car before, especially for the driver.

When in autonomous mode, the dashboard changes too, swapping out the tachometer (because you don’t really need to know what the engine is doing when you aren’t driving) and replacing it with a countdown timer that shows how much time you have left in autonomous mode. If it says you have 25 minutes left, that’s plenty of time to watch an episode of 30 Rock. When the autonomous-capable portion of your drive is nearly finished, the car will request your attention and give you a minute or two to prepare yourself and take back control. If you don’t respond, the car will pull over to the side of the road and safely bring the car to a halt.

Volvo will continue to tweak Concept 26 ahead of the launch of its Drive Me program in Gothenburg, but if its vision of automated driving as a time machine is accurate, we’re all going to have a lot more time on our hands.