Swedish automaker Volvo has a lofty goal: by 2020, ensure that nobody is seriously injured or killed in an accident involving a brand-new Volvo. In order to achieve that goal — which Volvo calls its Vision 2020 promise — the safety-obsessed automaker is simultaneously developing a whole suite of new technologies that help Volvo cars of the future better protect their occupants in a crash and in some cases, avoid a crash altogether.
Last week, Volvo announced the latest in a line of pilot programs helping it achieve its Vision 2020 goal: a fleet of 100 autonomous XC90 crossover SUVs, which it hopes to have on the roads of its native Sweden by 2017. The project itself will be called the “Drive Me” program, and will run for two years until the spring of 2019.
As with previous Volvo prototype trails in Sweden which have included electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid test fleets, the Drive Me program will place 100 self-driving XC90 vehicles in the hands of ordinary people in the city of Gothenburg, making use of 31-miles of ‘controlled’ roads approved for the trail. These roads will be single-direction only, and free from cyclists, pedestrians and other non-vehicular traffic.
Participants will lease them as they would any other car, with financial assistance to ensure lease payments are consummate with non autonomous-driving vehicles.
Speaking to Automotive News (subscription required) a Volvo spokesperson said that the vehicles would be expected to carry out regular every duties on roads where barriers existed between lanes, and would operate “in real traffic in a real situation”.
In order to operate and survive those real-world situations however, Volvo has been working hard with Swedish authorities to develop and approve a network of different technologies that will operate in between each vehicle (vehicle to vehicle) and the roadways themselves (vehicle to infrastructure), leveraging cloud-based computing power and positioning systems to ensure that all of the vehicles accurately and safely drive the approved routes, interacting with other autonomous drive vehicles and human-piloted cars as they go.
This interconnected network of vehicles, infrastructure and road will allow the 100 participant self-driving cars to better react to changing road conditions such as ice or snow, predict traffic flow, and even avoid accidents or congestion by taking an alternative route.
It can also allow maintenance crews and local councils to respond more quickly to road-based obstructions, dispatching gritting lorries or snow ploughs to a stretch of road covered by ice the minute it is detected, for example.
“We are entering uncharted territory in the field of autonomous driving,” Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President, Research and Development at Volvo told Automotive News. “Taking the exciting step to a public pilot, with the ambition to enable ordinary people to sit behind the wheel in normal traffic on public roads, has never been done before.”
Like similar autonomous-driving programs being developed by Audi, Tesla Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and others, Volvo’s system makes use of a suite of sensors embedded in each car’s body panels to give it a 360 degree view around itself. Taking over steering, turning, braking and parking, the system will allow drivers for the first time to turn their attention elsewhere while travelling on the specially-prepared auto-drive roads.
Like an airplane autopilot system however, the driver will be expected to be ready to jump in at any time, should the auto-pilot system fail. While this isn’t expected to happen, Volvo says extreme weather could cause the system to disengage, as could technical malfunctions. When the car reaches the end of the auto-drive route too, the driver will be required to take control of the vehicle again to continue their journey.
If they’re unable to, the car will bring itself to a stop at the side of the road in the safest place.
Although the system will cut its metaphorical teeth in Volvo’s home city, the automaker has said consumer demand in the U.S. means that autonomous drive technology will almost certainly head to the U.S. as and when any legislative hurdles have been overcome.
Interestingly too, the cost of adding autonomous drive capability won’t hike up the end price to consumers, says Volvo, since many of the systems used for autonomous driving are simply evolutions of existing car technology being used today for things like city braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
As always, we’ll be keeping a close eye on this pilot project in the coming few years, and let you know as and when any developments occur.
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