Wood gas car

Northern lights

Welcome to Sweden, the most innovative country in the world.

I left Sweden in the 1980s when the self-satisfaction started to get on my nerves.

There is a joke circulating in Brussels: a typical EU seminar of 27 experts, all exchanging ideas, except the Swedish delegate who sits, arms crossed, quietly. "Why don't you make a contribution?" asks her Italian neighbour. "Okay, why don't you just do what we do," says the Swedish delegate. 

It took me a long time to accept that there was a sound basis for that smugness. One can have a lot of visual impressions of Sweden - distinctly un-obese men and women sitting under parasols in old town squares, Pippi Longstocking and her monkey, Stockholm stranded in ice and snow, King Carl Gustaf walking down the Nobel-inscribed carpet, the deer in Lapland, the tanned youth sunbathing on the bare rocks of the western archipelago, the fashion models who appear to have a sideline in Olympic medals.

But here are the numbers: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Sweden ranks in first place among 167 countries in democratic values. In the World Economic Forum gender gap study, Sweden features as the most egalitarian country in the world. It nearly tops the UN index on development. Sweden has the world's third most competitive economy and the world's highest per capita spending on research and development. It has the world's lowest infant mortality rate and the second best environmental performance. And so it goes on.

Sweden is also the world's top arms exporter, per capita, along with Israel - the grit in the oyster, as it may have contributed to the death of one prime minister and certainly destroyed the career of another.

Also, how many countries with a population of fewer than ten million can boast of one, let alone two, famous car manufacturers?

Zero points if your guess was Belgium or Switzerland, with which, incidentally, Sweden is often confused (totally understandable given the fact both countries have crosses in their flags, and are neutral). Volvo and Saab work in close collaboration with legislators in parliament, and the bureaucrats of the Swedish national roads administration (NRA) lead the way for Sweden in two areas in the automotive world: traffic safety, and alternative fuels.

The country already has the world's lowest traffic fatality rates, but the government is committed to its vision of no road deaths at all.

Three years ago I was tooling around the northern town of Borlange (seat of the NRA) in a modified Volvo with a rather irritating woman's voice telling me when I exceeded the speed limit for that kind of road, detected by automatic sensors. The accelerator vibrated uncomfortably. It was easier just to keep to the speed limit; overtaking was, of course, impossible. Before I started the car, I was asked to breathe into a plastic mouthpiece attached by a coiled lead to an apparatus in the dashboard. This was an alcolock. Had I had any ethanol in my breath, the car would not have started. It was hard work. One impact assessment produced by the Dutch transport ministry laconically noted that alcolocks were not to be recommended to asthmatics. By the time the light showed green, my heart was pounding from exertion.

These bits of prototype technology were initially quite crude. Since then, however, the company that invented the modern seatbelt has made commercially available several safety enhancing modifications including lane departure warning, autobrakes (if you're too close to the car in front) and driver alert control, which uses sensors and cameras to determine if the vehicle is driven in a controlled way
(50 per cent of accidents are due to driver distractedness): when erratic control is indicated, a coffee cup signal lights up - a hint, I was informed recently by Anders Eugensson, a Volvo traffic analyst, to take a break.

Volvo for women

Volvo's innovations do nothing to dispel Swedes' image as, well, a sober people, but Volvo's designers sometimes flaunt their more light-hearted side: the company assembled an all-female design team to make a concept car that women actually want.

After consulting Volvo's workforce, the all-female team, led by designer Eva-Lisa Andersson, produced a car that parks automatically and has an engine that automatically books an appointment at a garage when needed - in fact, the bonnet cannot be opened by non-professionals. It has changeable seat covers, cinema-type rear seats and 'gull wing' remotely operated doors to avoid the problem of shopping bags on the rainy pavement.

In the Second World War, with access to oil supplies cut off, Swedes pioneered the use of wood gas in their cars. These days though, Volvo's alternative fuels expert Nicholas Gustafsson tells me, the more common way of avoiding oil dependence is ethanol. And what would you know? Sweden is Europe's leading proponent of ethanol, partly owing to the government's passing of a law that requires every petrol station in the country to provide ethanol pumps. The government also granted tax concessions, an exemption from the Stockholm congestion charge and a taxpayer-funded cashback grant for individuals who stumped up for the slightly dearer ethanol-compatible cars.

There are more than 1,500 ethanol filling stations in Sweden (the UK, for example, has about 20) - more than the rest of Europe put together. However, most cars are sold as flexi-fuel models, which means they can run on either petrol or ethanol in any concentration. So if the tank is half full of ethanol and the owner fills up with petrol, the car's system will adjust to the new 50-50 mix.

Ethanol produces 60 per cent less carbon dioxide than petrol. At a conference I attended a few months ago it was made very clear that ethanol is a happy medium, since biogas and hydrogen cell fuel vehicles that produced less CO2 were currently more expensive.

Some 15 per cent of new cars sold in Sweden are now flexi-fuel models, the - you guessed it - highest figure in Europe. Other governments, said the analyst John Bennett at the conference, should follow suit with a series of incentives. 

Small is beautiful

Although Swedes are a nation of proudly self-conscious early adopters ruled by a government that pushes innovation in many ways, it would be a mistake to think of them as pliable collectivists. The country has an almost unparalleled tradition of individual innovators and inventors: the zip fastener, the ball bearing, the propeller, the refrigerator and the pacemaker are a few examples of Swedish gifts to the world.

It was Swede Niklas Zennstrom who invented Skype - the technology that allows free calls worldwide via the Internet. One can only guess at the reasons for Sweden's disproportionate success in innovation -
would it be unkind to suggest that the long, lonely winters when people have nothing else to do may be at fault? More tangibly, Sweden's small, homogenous nature may be said to allow early adoption of novel ideas.

Dark exports

One disadvantage of being a small country is that any indigenous defence industry is extremely reliant on exports. Add this to neutrality and a purportedly ethical arms export policy, and Sweden's arms manufacturers face a double challenge.

Amazing though it may seem, given the country's image (after all, it gave the world the Nobel peace prize), Sweden is one of the world's biggest arms exporters per capita. But the country's engineering culture and the self-sufficiency imposed by neutrality have produced fine armaments across the whole range.

It is here that the dark side of Sweden is manifest, through a history of falsified expert certificates, which specified end-user destinations that were safe countries, whereas everyone knew the arms were exported onwards to warring or oppressive regimes.

In addition, Swedish arms firms have gained a reputation for themselves as champion bribers. The most notorious case occurred in the 1980s, when Sweden's Bofors company won - to many observers' surprise - an export order for 410 howitzers for India, ahead of a favoured French rival, Sofma.

Rajiv Gandhi, the newly elected and youthful Indian Prime Minister, had specifically and very publicly announced that no bribes must be paid on this deal, since he had been elected on a Kennedyesque 'Mr Clean' ticket. But bribes there were all the same, allegedly, ending up in Gandhi's own pocket. He was turfed out at the next election. For many years, the word Bofors entered the lexicon and became a synonym in India for everything rotten and stinking.

Rajiv might not have been the only political victim. A book recently published to good reviews in Sweden argues that Olof Palme was killed by Swedish military types with a stake in the bribes deal going through. Palme was rather idealistic, and the book builds up a convincing case that he was about to stop the deal happening. In the event, the contract was signed without problems two weeks after his assassination.

And so it goes on

The Bofors scandal had huge reverberations not only in India but also in Sweden, yet Swedish arms firms continue the practice.

Gripen International, which produces a small, relatively cheap, but advanced jetfighter has recently been revealed to have bribed the leaders of the Czech Republic and Hungary to secure a deal over the heads of rivals such as the Lockheed F-16.

To be fair, bribes are fairly common in the arms industry, but this tells us something new and, to me, oddly attractive about Sweden, which in most other respects behaves like the perfect teacher's pet in the global classroom of nation states.

If you throw in the political assassinations - Anna Lindh, the foreign minister, was killed a few years ago - it builds up a picture of Sweden's darker side.

In the tourist brochures you have Swedish girls smiling and wearing bicycle helmets, riding through forests. But when I went to Sweden a few years ago to investigate the Palme murder, I saw a different country: a fog- and snow-bound Stockholm where you could imagine every Volvo garlanding exhaust fumes was following you; where you met shady military types and fervent anti-communist businessmen. I rather liked that. A place that faces you only with its bright side is as dead as the moon.

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