When the oil runs out, we'll drive funny Volvos

While Californians keep one eye on the rising cost of petrol, car makers have some radical solutions, reports Jason Barlow
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They call him The Governator. When Arnold Schwarzenegger swung into power in California last September armed only with his usual monstrous chutzpah and a Hummer, the rest of the world didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Only in America. And only in California.

They call him The Governator. When Arnold Schwarzenegger swung into power in California last September armed only with his usual monstrous chutzpah and a Hummer, the rest of the world didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Only in America. And only in California.

Yet beneath its surface glitz, eternal sunshine and unconventional politics, this is a complicated place. Almost 35 million people live in California, and it's the fifth most dynamic economy on the planet. Recently, it has been grappling with its own localised energy crisis. On top of which, there's its heavily mythologised adoration of the automobile. There are 31 million cars, trucks and motorbikes registered in California, which represents about 10 per cent of the total US car market. This is causing some predictably major problems, especially in densely populated southern California. Daddy's long since forgotten about taking the T-Bird away, but the legislators are looking increasingly interested. Or at least they would be if they weren't stuck in a huge traffic jam on the 101.

No surprise, then, that against this back-drop of auto obsession and accelerating environmental concern, most major car manufacturers have established advanced design studios in America's west coast. BMW, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Porsche, GM, Volkswagen/Audi, Toyota and Volvo all have secretive design consultancy outposts - "skunkworks", in local parlance, after the legendary Lockheed R&D centre that devised the Stealth fighter - in California.

And stealthy is the word. Outsiders rarely get a look in, for obvious reasons. A cross between an automotive think-tank and a conventional design studio, this business is all about long-range thinking. In other words, these guys aren't working on my MPV's mid-life face-lift, they're figuring out what sort of MPV my one-year-old daughter is likely to end up driving.

Assuming it's an MPV at all. Volvo, for one, isn't so sure. Last week it opened the doors of its Monitoring and Concept Centre in Camarillo, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, to journalists for the first time in the studio's 18-year existence, to posit a future that at first glance could scarcely have been less Volvo-like. Before delving into that, though, VMCC's general manager Lars Erik Lundin underlines the significance of California to the business.

"California embraces huge human, racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity," he says. "That plus the state's geography and fantastic climate mean that the people here live life out loud, socially, politically and economically. It's a pioneering, frontier kind of place. They invented drag racing, the mountain bike and the microprocessor. But there are other advantages for us. It's not that easy to get here from Sweden, and even if you do locate us we're still quite difficult to get hold of. For all that we're immersed in southern California, we're also very well isolated. Which means that we're left alone to focus on our job."

Which, according to strategic design boss, Doug Frasher, is to "create, cultivate and realise innovative ideas for emotional products that beautifully express the future of the Volvo soul". That's one in the eye for anyone who thinks the company is still primarily about boxy estates. Plastered all over the studio's walls is further evidence that this archetypal Swedish brand is heading off into potentially choppy uncharted waters. Although business and market analysts make up part of the 19-strong team, Frasher insists that they're actually creating the future rather than trying to predict it. "Take the skateboard," he says, "who needed that? Now it's an entire industry. People have carved lucrative careers out of it. We want to find stuff like that."

Connecting Volvo with something as frivolous as a skateboard is a leap in itself. But fun is a key part of the equation, even if the Mobility 2010/Tandem project The Independent was given unique access to is at heart an environmental plan. Dressed in two alternative body styles, the Tandem sits the passenger behind the driver, fighter-jet style, in a rakish looking tube that is, crucially, half the width of a normal car. Driving the studio's "mule" confirms that whatever powertrain eventually ends up in here - hydrogen fuel cell, pure electric motor or petrol/electric hybrid are all possibilities - the driving experience itself is pretty unique. Closer, in fact, to a motorbike than any current car.

"We're thinking in terms of a 'family' matrix of cars," Frasher says, "starting with the Tandem commuting car. We want to get away from that one size fits all mentality - people need more options when it comes to optimised vehicles. So this car would be complementary to our 2010 XC90. Our ideal scenario is that the person who needs to commute has the choice of the optimal vehicle in which to do it. One that's still safe but exciting to use and look at. There might even be a different ownership 'model'. This should change the way the world thinks about car ownership."

But will it? Volvo's Tandem is just one encouraging development. In California, Toyota's hybrid petrol-electric Prius is a sell-out hit, with a burgeoning waiting list and cult reputation. And Ford plans to introduce a hybrid version of its Escape SUV later this year. Setting aside any optimism, there seems to be some genuine momentum in a country notoriously resistant to it.

Although there are two other significant factors. The first concerns the continuing rise in oil prices, which has left the poor old American consumer feeling so jittery it even made the front page of a recent edition of USA Today. Apparently it now costs more than $48 to fill a Chevrolet Tahoe, the US's premier gas-guzzling SUV - even the most brainless good ole boy now seems to have grasped that petrol (and therefore oil) doesn't grow on trees.

The second is the impending release of Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, which, in depicting an environmental Armageddon, has dragged the issue of global warming firmly back on to the mainstream agenda on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a shame that it takes a film to remind us that there is a very real consequence to our constant consumption. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger should be able to appreciate the irony of that.

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