The concept isn’t really complex. Modularity is a design ethic that breaks a functional piece of equipment or gear into smaller, replaceable components. A real good example is a desktop computer; various functional subcomponents (hard drives, graphics boards, CPU chips, etc.) can easily be removed and replaced when necessary. It really works well with computers so, why aren’t cars built like this?
Well, many are starting to. In particular, last year, Volvo introduced a new modular automobile platform called Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) that will underpin all of its models sized from the S60 up. The first to be based on the SPA platform will be the Volvo XC90 which uses component design to its fullest advantage.
And there are other companies. The adoption of modular automotive platforms, like Volvos’ SPA, is becoming more commonplace in the automotive industry. The major car manufacturers are discovering that once the modular design ethic is adopted that reduced development times and economies of scale allow automakers to focus on more overall design elements of their cars and add more technology than would be possible with complex, unique platforms.
Volvo also boasts that the SPA platform helps reduce weight and improve weight distribution of vehicles based on it and it also allows for far more flexibility inside. For example, the SPA platform uses a single lower undercarriage that the seats mount to and the engine and other drive components are attached to. This undercarriage is flexible for the different cars in Volvo’s model line. Need more legroom in a design? The undercarriage allows the second row of seats to be moved backwards. Need a third set of seats, they can be easily added. This, in fact, is exactly what is done with the new XC90s. They will come standard with seven seats although the two seats in the third row are designed for people 5 feet 7 inches or shorter.
Another benefit of the SPA platform is that it was designed from the onset to allow a hybrid vehicle configuration. In fact, the new XC90’s range-topping trim, the T8, will be a plug-in hybrid vehicle. The drivetrain in the T8 will combine a turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with an electric drive system, generating as much as 400 horsepower while emitting as little as 60 grams of CO2 per kilometer. High performance and eco-friendliness can both be achieved when modular design is used.
There are also industrial benefits to SPA. It allows Volvo to develop a model range of cars based on the same joint modules and interfaces, scalable systems and components that can all built on a flexible production line. This means all Volvo models from the 60-cluster upwards can be built on the same production line, irrespective of complexity. This is a major positive for production engineers.
One last benefit of the SPA platform is its safety. The modular design of Volvos cars is complemented with the extensive use of high-strength boron steel. This allows SPA-based cars to be made more compact and safer at the same time. The SPA platform has also been designed to incorporate “modules” with the latest electronic driving, safety and entertainment features also.
The official Volvo XC90 world debut will take place in early October at the 2014 Paris Auto Show. Volvo tells us that the first examples are expected in local showrooms next spring, most likely as 2015 models.
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