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Henry Ford is said to have hatched the idea for his motor carriage company through his work as an engineer at Detroit Dry Dock steamship company. As in the Motor City, the automotive industry in Sweden grew in part out of expertise developed in shipbuilding, in the port city of Gothenburg, where the Göta River drains into the North Sea.
“There were imports, there were exports. And trade means you’re going to need ships, so that started a shipbuilding industry,” says Soren Nyeboe, director of the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg Harbor. “So the shipyards grew up, and the mechanical workshops grew up, and the industrialization, in that sense, came quite natural.”
Volvo was founded here in 1927, and the brand has always embraced this city’s rugged manufacturing heritage. This is plainly evident in Volvo’s use of the Iron Mark as its logo. A circle with an arrow at two-o’clock, the icon represents the brand’s connection to Swedish steel—not exactly Valerian, but known since the Middle Ages as high quality and durable.
Volvo has gone on to become the largest employer in Gothenburg, not only in terms of direct employees, but also via the secondary and tertiary effects of suppliers and sub-contractors. “I would think it would difficult to find someone in the city whose family hasn’t worked for Volvo at some time in their life,” says Nyeboe.
The brand’s connection to its home city is equally pervasive in other realms outside of the simple economics of employment. Taxi and livery companies in town all use Volvos, mainly the brand’s handsome V90 station wagon. Volvo trucks cart produce and retail goods into the city center, and take garbage out. Volvo construction equipment helps build new residential, office, and retail establishments. Volvo buses, including some experimental battery-powered electric models, run the city’s public transport system. Volvo Penta marine engines power the free ferries that shepherd residents and visitors to the northern and southern Archipelagoes—groups of nearby coastal islands popular with hikers, bikers, kayakers, and fishers.
The brand is also deeply invested in the cultural life of the city. It is a name sponsor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. It hosts tennis, golf, and equestrian events. And it brings home the famed Volvo Ocean Race—a biannual sailing competition that circumnavigates the globe for 45,000 nautical miles, across four oceans, stopping at just twelve cities on six continents. This nautical connection has brought about a new environmental promise from Volvo. “We’ve been influenced by the issue of plastics in the ocean, looking at recyclability and sustainability,” says Robin Page, the brand’s senior vice president of design. “And we’ve made a commitment that by 2025 we’ll have 25% of the plastics in our cars made from recycled materials.”
Volvo’s Overseas Delivery Program brings thousands of visitors to town each year. This free opportunity offers customers from America the option to pick up the Volvo they order from their local stateside dealership at the factory in Gothenburg, and includes two premium economy airline tickets, a night at a downtown hotel, dinner, a visit to the Volvo Museum, a ride to the factory, a personal walk-around of their vehicle, temporary plates, two weeks of insurance for a Continental driving trip, and shipment home of their car from any of ten European ports.
The brand also hosts a strong presence in local higher education, especially at the University of Gothenburg, where it provides design and engineering scholarships, and the Chalmers University of Technology. “Actually, Volvo has supported a professorship and built up the Institution of Injury Prevention at Chalmers,” says Malin Ekholm, the brand’s head of safety. “So, now there’s an institution where we have our research,”
Ekholm’s department has long been deeply connected to improving the safety of drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and others on the streets of the city. This is part of Volvo’s Vision 2020 initiative, which is intended to eliminate serious injury or death in any Volvo vehicle by the titular year. “We have a research platform, which we call SAFER, here in Gothenburg at the Lindholmen [Science Research Park], and here we have all the major stakeholders, including the governmental institution for road and traffic safety,” Ekholm says. “So we have infrastructure, we have the city, we have the companies in Sweden developing functions and components, and the manufacturers—Scania is there, Volvo Trucks is there, and we are there. So it’s really a very strong knowledge-building network.”
One local large-scale project that has resulted from this collaboration is Volvo’s DriveMe program, which is intended to investigate the real-world effects of placing cars with advanced driver assistance functions into the hands of ordinary citizens. Originally, the program was meant to involve 100 self-driving, fully autonomous Volvos, and as many local civilian families, and was intended to start in 2017. But due to technological struggles, the program has now been scaled back. It will now involve just 100 people overall, will not utilize fully autonomous cars but rather ones equipped with current driver assistance features, and will not begin until 2021.
Volvo’s brand pillars have always been related to durability, safety, utility, and human-centered design, necessities for an automobile company based in a sparsely populated and resource-limited country that is frozen solid for a majority of the year, a place where materials must be utilized efficiently, and a locus where breakdown could easily lead to death from exposure.
Volvo designers thus take their inspiration from the local landscape. “You’ve got this beautiful natural coastline, and in there, you’ve got the natural materials like driftwood, and stone,” says Page. “And you can see that the color and materials team definitely bring those materials to the table.” This connection to form, function, and landscape fosters Volvo’s influence beyond Gothenburg, and beyond the automotive world. “When we meet with architects and product designers in Stockholm, and we ask them what they put on their influence board as representing Modern Scandinavian design,” says Page. “They say, ‘To be honest with you, recently, we’ve been putting your cars on there.”