Not to be outdone by Japanese automaker Nissan and its self-driving LEAF, Volvo announced yesterday that it plans to launch a massive self-driving pilot project in the Swedish city of Gothenburg next year. As you’d expect, plug-in cars are expected to play a part.
Called the ‘Drive Me’ project and backed by the Swedish government, the research and development project is due to kick off next year with an initial consultation and design phase which will examine customer’s attitudes towards self-driving cars as well as develop the software and IT framework needed to commence a 100-car autonomous test-fleet trail by 2017.
Like other automakers investing in self-driving technology, Volvo sees autonomous car technology as a way of improving safety and reducing emissions. That’s something Volvo is so confident of that it has set itself a lofty goal: Vision 2020 — the concept that no-one is killed or seriously injured in a Volvo car by 2020, and that its entire range is zero emissions.
For the first three years of its Drive Me project, Volvo won’t be letting huge numbers of autonomous cars out on the public road. Instead, it will use the time to develop and refine its own self-driving technology, which we understand will utilise cloud-based services to help keep car occupants and other road users safe at all times. But don’t think that means Volvo is starting from scratch, because it isn’t.
Volvo’s SATRE road train project — the precursor to Drive Me — involved a line of autonomous cars following a set distance behind a lead vehicle without any input from the cars’ drivers, proved Volvo already has the technology to provide basic autonomous driving. Further still, many aspects of self-driving technology — like radar-assisted cruise control, lane departure warning systems, pedestrian and cyclist detection and steer assist — are already available across the Volvo range.
We talked to Volvo this week, and was told that while initial prototype Drive Me cars will use Volvo’s recently-released range of Drive-E diesel and gasoline four-cylinder, low emission engines, electric drivetrains will follow, since it follows Volvo’s goal of a future of zero tailpipe emissions. Moreover, Volvo’s Drive-E engine range — which will power Volvo’s next generation of passenger cars — have all been designed to work alongside an electric motor in a hybrid or plug-in hybrid arrangement, so expect Volvo’s Drive Me project to include at least some plug-in cars.
Volvo says the research project will study both the societal and economic benefits of autonomous vehicles through improved traffic flow, safety and fuel efficiency, as well as consumers’ attitude toward autonomous technology. It will also pay close attention to infrastructure requirements for autonomous driving and investigate how the general public respond and interact smoothly with a self-driving car.
But perhaps the biggest challenge — and one Volvo may find easier with close support from the Swedish government — is a legislative one. With self-driving cars come a whole new field of legislative questions: who’s at fault if an autonomous car is involved in an accident? Can the cars drive without a human inside? Who pays for parking fines, or traffic violations? What if a car goes wrong?
All these questions will inevitably slow down the evolution of the self-driving car. But with Volvo, Nissan, Tesla and many other automakers now publicly developing self-driving technology for future models, we think a future where the car — not you — does the driving is inevitable.
The question is how long it’ll take to arrive.
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