Way last century, Sweden had two global auto manufacturers — Volvo and Saab. Volvo built staid cars that were as solid as the rock of Gibraltar. Saab was the quirky cousin that insisted on mounting its ignition switch in the center console rather than on the dashboard. It also offered styling that was trés avant. If you wanted safety in your Swedish car, you bought a Volvo. If you wanted a little dash of excitement, you bought a Saab.
Both companies got caught up in a game of “mine’s bigger than yours” that played out between Ford and General Motors at the end of the last century. Ford started things off by buying Jaguar and Land Rover as it put together what it called its Premium Auto Group. Then it bought Volvo in 1999. Not to be outdone, General Motors then purchased Saab. Less than 10 years later, both once proud Swedish manufacturers were toast and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as the Great White Fathers in Detroit bled both companies dry.
Volvo was rescued by Geely but Saab slowly sank between the waves. Its car manufacturing assets were purchased out of bankruptcy by a new corporation somewhat grandly known as National Electric Vehicle Sweden, which set about converting the last generation Saab 9-3 to electric power. In 2015, the company signed a strategic collaboration agreement with Panda New Energy Company of China to deliver 150,000 9-3 electric vehicles by the end of 2020.
Evergrande Group of China acquired 51% of the shares in NEVS in January 2019. Evergrande has since then increased its holdings to 68%. National Energy Holding, owned by Kai Johan Jiang, owns the remaining shares. The company is still peddling the converted 9-3 battery electric car to a largely uninterested audience.
But now the company says it has exciting news — Sango, an all new 6-passenger autonomous electric shuttle that is currently undergoing trials in and around the NEVS home city of Trollhättan. NEVS expects a fleet of 10 will begin operating in Stockholm later this year. The styling is a bit much for such a utilitarian vehicle but it retains some of the funkiness Saabs were always known for, which may be why Road & Track once suggested that Saabs were built in Trollhättan by trolls.
The key to the Sango autonomous shuttles is a system the company calls PONS — “the first generation of autonomous vehicles with a connected user interface.” Anna Haupt, vice president of mobility solutions at NEVS, says, “We started by looking at why urban citizens have such strong desire to use their own cars rather than public transport, even if it means sitting in traffic jams for hours each day. The reason is privacy. In your own car you feel safe, secure, relaxed and free.”
“We realized that, to be able to really benefit from autonomous technology, we had to design a vehicle that would not only be an enabler for shared vehicles, but also for shared rides. How do you combine privacy with sharing? That was one of the main challenges to overcome,” says Haupt.
The solution may be Sango’s flexible interior, which offers a combination of movable seats and walls to create three settings — private, social, and family. When the movable walls are in place, the vehicle is divided into four smaller areas for private journeys for up to four people. In social settings, the dividing walls are lowered to allow four people to travel facing each other. In family setting, up to six people, seated in three rows, can travel comfortably, the company says.
As well as the Sango vehicle, the PONS mobility system also comprises a user interface in the form of an app and a fleet management system which monitors and optimizes the fleet of vehicles when it is operating throughout the city.
“Getting from A to B with self-driving electric vehicles is not as far off as perhaps the car industry is implying. The era of one person per car and the era of owning a car, are soon things of the past. A new era is coming, where cars are optimized for city mobility and better quality of life for the individual,” says Haupt.
Autonomous driving chores are handled by the AutoX AI Driver system supplied by AutoX, a leading Level 4 autonomous driving technology company based in Silicon Valley and Shenzhen. AutoX was chosen for its unique software and hardware integrated approach, safety, scalability, and ability to navigate in dense urban environments.
“A world with less traffic means fewer cars,” the company says. “NEVS believes there is no reason to own an autonomous vehicle because it can pick the passengers up from wherever they are and take them wherever they want to go in the city, at a fair price. At the same time, they don’t have to worry about parking, refueling, service, or running costs.”
All of that is quite correct and is the impetus for the push by several manufacturers, not the least of which is Tesla, to bring robotaxis to the world’s crowded cities. The list of companies offering such vehicles is ridiculously long and yet the idea is still in its infancy, as the notion of riding around in what are essentially horizontal elevators has yet to catch on with riders.
Waymo is probably best known for its shuttle service in Phoenix, but Fisker, May Mobility, Hyundai, and Local Motors all have plans to crack the autonomous shuttle market and disrupt traditional public transportation models.
The one thing the NEVS press announcement doesn’t clarify is how changes to the interior of the Sango will be made to create each of those three spaces. Who will remove and install seats and raise and lower dividing panels as required? Other than that quibble, this is another step forward toward an autonomous driving future that may not be here yet but is definitely on the horizon.