Volvo’s Electric High-Wire Act
For the safety-first Swedish OEM, the 2024 EX90 SUV kicks off a daring plan to go fully electric by 2030.
Under a circus-size tent in downtown Stockholm, Volvo recently introduced its new high-wire act — one with its share of nail-biting risk.
The electric EX90 appeared behind a floating robe of translucent bubbles, a three-row flagship SUV designed to wean Volvo and its customers off the grimy gasoline pump and onto a pristine plug. Jim Rowan, Volvo’s Scottish-born CEO, affirmed a plan to sell fully electric cars, and nothing but, by 2030. If the company’s wildly ambitious transformation succeeds, the EX90 may be a shoo-in for some future Swedish museum.
Prowling the Stockholm stage, Rowan read the room — a packed house of global automotive media, who’ve heard similar grandiose claims before — and insisted this is no bait-and-switch promise. “Today marks a new era for Volvo,” he said. “We are laser focused and razor sharp on meeting those ambitions.”
Volvo calls the EX90 the safest and most technically adept model in the company’s 95-year history, which includes such achievements as the world’s first three-point automotive seat belt in 1959. Even before this luxury SUV logs its first mile on global roads that take more than 1 million human lives every year, Volvo asserts the EX90 will eliminate up to one in five serious injury accidents, and one in 10 accidents overall. That claim is based not on fuzzy math, said Lotta Jakobsson, a 33-year company veteran and specialist in injury protection, but on Volvo’s industry-unique accident database that’s been a wellspring of company safety innovations since the 1970s.
“You have to first identify problems, then understand the mechanisms of accidents, and only then can you get results,” Jakobsson told SAE Media. “That data is key to our success,” and underpins a long-term goal that no customers will die or be seriously injured in a Volvo — including while sitting still. The EX90’s onboard sensors and driver monitor camera use AI algorithms to detect not only distraction or drowsiness, but driver intoxication and health impairment. Cabin-based, inward-looking radar can detect the breathing of occupants, from a baby’s breath to a panting puppy, to ensure no one is left behind in a hot car. Led by an innovative rooftop lidar unit from Florida-based Luminar, the company says the EX90 has enough standard hardware aboard to allow safe, fully unsupervised (SAE Level 4) driving at an unspecified future date, with no human attention or interventions required. (https://www.sae.org/news/2022/12/luminar-lidar-for-volvo-ex90).
Still a full year from production in Ridgeville, S.C., and China, with that Charleston-area plant supplying all U.S. showroom models by early 2024, the EX90 is not the first Volvo EV. But where the XC40 and C40 Recharge rely on a modified ICE platform, the larger, seven-seat EX90 is the first to use a dedicated skateboard structure. One advantage of this architecture is markedly better driving range than the notoriously stingy Recharges, at a company-projected 300 miles (482 km) under the EPA’s test regime, and 600 kilometers (373 mi.) by Europe’s looser WLPT standards.
A skateboard platform displayed at the vehicle’s reveal makes room for a 111-kWh battery pack, with 107 kWh of usable energy. A new nickel-rich, reduced-cobalt chemistry boosts potency of these prismatic cells sourced from China’s CATL. Volvo and other OEMs are racing to create an American-centric supply chain for both batteries and their raw-or-refined input materials — or face the loss of lucrative consumer tax credits under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Any credits could soften the blow of an estimated $80,000 price for a well-equipped EX90 with a high-performance powertrain. That figure compares to those of three-row SUV rivals such as the 845-hp/634 kW Rivian R1S (base price $79,500) and TK Mercedes EQS SUV (base price $105,550), but still well above the roughly $66,000 for a smartly equipped, gasoline-powered Volvo XC90. The company will park both models uncomfortably side-by-side in showrooms, but for the XC90, the clock is already ticking toward 2030.
The EX90 should make that clock tick faster, in every sense. The all-wheel-drive EX90 should rocket to 100 kph (62 mph) in 4.7 seconds, making it a virtual Millennium Falcon versus the boxy Volvo wagons of yore. Dual permanent-magnet AC motors with round windings generate 370 kW (496 hp) and 910 Nm (lb-ft). In more-economical driving modes, the EX90 will send about 180 kW (241 hp) through its smaller front-axle motor alone, according to Simone Vizzini, engineering team leader for battery systems. An elegantly designed electromechanical clutch can separate front and rear axles and sideline the rear motor.
Vehicle top speed is limited to 180 kph (112 mph) for safety’s sake. “Any faster, and you’d just drain the battery anyway,” Vizzini said.
That structural load-bearing battery pack, with 204 cells and 17 modules resting on a glycol circuit-coolant plate, guards against crash intrusion for batteries and human occupants alike. Lutz Stiegler, solution manager for electric propulsion, says that compared with Volvo’s Recharge models, the EX90’s overall efficiency — the percentage of onboard energy converted
to forward motion — rises from 87% to nearly 92%, an enormous leap in engineering terms. That’s also a major clue to the big EX90’s expected one-third increase in driving range versus the much-smaller XC40 Recharge, at 300 miles versus 223 miles (482 km vs. 359 km).
Despite engineering a 400-volt electrical architecture, versus the 800-to-900V used by Porsche’s Taycan or the Lucid Air, Volvo managed to boost DC fast charging to a maximum 250 kW (335 hp), topping the 200 kW (268 hp) of a Mercedes EQS SUV or Rivian R1S. Compared with Volvo Recharge EVs, charging current rises from 375 amps to 670 amps, Vizzini noted.
Volvo claims an 80% state of charge can be achieved in about 30 minutes or that 180 km (112 mi.) of driving range can be restored in 10 minutes. Plug and Play charging lets owners initiate public refills with no hassle and automated payments. Like Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup, the EX90’s bi-directional capability (with a separate wall box required) can power homes, gear or even another EV. Someday, two-way charging could allow consumers to sell stored battery energy to utilities to balance the grid. At home, a CCS plug port on the left rear flank is powered by an onboard 11-kW charger tucked near the rear bumper, with three-phase power for Europe and single-phase for U.S. models.
0.29 Cd – and Thor’s Hammer
In an Internet briefing prior to the EX90’s official reveal, T. Jon Mayer, Volvo’s head of exterior design, walked the author through the EX90. Where the rival Mercedes EQS SUV pays a stylistic price for its range-boosting aerodynamics — the Benz recalls an oversized bowl of runny ice cream — the Volvo manages to look crisp and distinctive. The body advances the signature Scandinavian design that has come to characterize Volvo: Cool and minimal, yet still cozy and inviting. Designers took inspiration from the cross-section of a nautilus shell, with its classic “Golden Ratio” that’s a hallmark of design and architecture.
Mayer and his team coaxed the EX90 to a 0.29 coefficient of drag, considered quite slippery for a seven-passenger SUV. An obsessive focus on aerodynamics, Mayer explained, boosts not only driving range, but the perception of luxury and quality. Door handles are flush in modern EV fashion; flush window glazing eliminates traditional caps that create aero drag. Subtle inserts within 22-in. wheels cover tire bolts and quell turbulence. There’s a shallow front trunk (‘frunk’) beneath the hood, but it serves mainly for cable storage.
The brand’s latest iteration of striking “Thor’s Hammer” lighting (see accompanying image) brings a world’s first: Daytime LED running lights part like a fluttering eyelid to reveal nighttime lenses below, part of a 1.3- million-megapixel front illumination system.
“We had a powerful daytime lighting signature, but the message got diluted at night,” Mayer said. “So, we made the hammer shape clearly legible, day or night.”
The interior looks handsome, if a touch sterile, in the manner of so many current EVs. Strands of recycled, translucent wood add visual warmth, illuminated by a matrix of patterned light at night. A commanding tablet-style, 14.5-in. (368-mm) screen reclines against the dash, with a smaller second screen for the driver. A light-admitting panoramic sunroof and generous glass area nod to the abundance of light in a Swedish summer, and its relative lack in winter, according to Mayer. The absence of cowhide in the cabin aims for sustainability and weight savings by employing Volvo’s sustainable Kvadrat wool blend. An available “Nordico” fabric includes recycled PET bottles and pine oil from Scandinavian forests.
All told, there are 48 kg (106 lb) of recycled plastics or bio-based materials inside. It’s all part of Volvo’s bid to become entirely carbon-neutral by 2040.
Platform for tech platforms
The tech roster encompasses speedy 250-kW DC charging, bi-directional charging capability and 5G connectivity. New Nvidia-based, centralized core computing is part of an industry trend toward the “software-defined” car, allowing near-limitless OTA updates, even for safety and propulsion systems, Volvo engineers said.
“The idea is that your car won’t be obsolete the minute you drive it off the lot,” says Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s VP of automotive.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Cockpit Platforms and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3D tool support a slick Google-based infotainment system. Volvo engineers claim the UX is five times faster than that of previous Volvos. That unit melds with wireless Apple CarPlay and a reference-level Bowers & Wilkins audio system with Dolby Atmos.
When it goes on sale in 2024, the EX90 will become the closely watched avatar of Volvo’s plan to introduce one new EV model per year through 2030. The market reception to those models will go a long way to determine whether Volvo can make good on its all-electric promise — or whether factors beyond its control may dictate a change in strategy.
In the media glare of Stockholm, Volvo executives declined to delve deeply into the possibility of losing, say, half their customers. But privately, more than one executive said Volvo was willing to accept some temporary dip in sales, profits or market share to seize the high ground in tech and the fight against climate change and position the OEM for an inevitable electric future. They rationalize that ultimately the alternative would be far worse for business. One Volvo exec summed up the prevailing view: “If you wait until it’s safe and obvious, it’s already too late.”