As anyone who has attempted it will tell you, driving in the center of London is something of an assault on the senses for the average human. From the sheer volume of vehicles to the infuriating one-way systems, agressive delivery drivers, pushy taxi drivers, clueless tourists and courier riders with surprising death wish, driving in London is an experience few willingly repeat.
Learning to drive in London — I speak from personal experience — is even more of an ordeal, even if you’re used to the rules of the road as a keen, law-abiding cyclist. As a fairly experienced professional driver, even I try to avoid London traffic unless absolutely necessary.
As a consequence, it’s hard to comprehend why Swedish automaker Volvo would want to base its latest, most ambitious advanced technology trial there. Until perhaps, we tell you that Volvo is about to use noisy, smelly, congested London as the location for the latest chapter in its Drive Me project, a multi-national, multi-party autonomous vehicle project involving Volvo, academic institutions, everyday drivers, psychologists, insurance professionals and legal experts.
The goal? To pave the way for a future where our cars are not only safer but more convenient to use, spend less time stuck in traffic, and are kinder to the environment too.
Announced this morning, Drive Me’s latest research project — called “Drive Me London” — will begin early next year using a limited number of semi-autonomous Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrids. Leased to everyday users, Volvo’s self-driving cars will log each and every journey, passing on that data to Thatcham Research, which will conduct a thorough analysis to examine how the car behaves in everyday situations as well as understanding how other road users and the car’s occupants respond to autonomous driving decisions made by the car.
As the insurance industry’s research organization, Thatcham Research will then share its analysis with both Volvo and the insurance industry. The former will use the data to better refine its autonomous vehicle performance and behavior. The latter will use the data to try and understand the true implications that autonomous vehicles will have on the insurance industry, both in terms of accident mitigation but also in terms of driver premiums.
“Autonomous driving represents a leap forward in car safety,” said Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars. “The sooner AD cars are on the roads, the sooner lives will start being saved.” Samuelsson, who became CEO of Volvo in 2012, has long been an advocate of autonomous vehicle technology and believes self-driving vehicle technology will help Volvo reach its commitment that no one will be seriously injured or killed in an accident involving a new Volvo car by the year 2020.
It’s a belief that will be reiterated next month in London at a seminar sponsored by Volvo and Thatcham entitled “A Future with Autonomous Driving Cars — Implications for the Insurance Industry,” a talk which we’re rather disappointed we’ll not be able to make.
As Volvo’s most advanced vehicle to date, the XC90 full-size SUV is the perfect test bed for Volvo’s autonomous drive (AD) technology. In addition to being able to carry the additional hardware currently needed for Volvo’s trials, the XC90 already features many of the sensors needed to make autonomous driving a possibility, as well as pre-existing hardware that makes it easy for Volvo to integrate fully-automated driving controls without completely re engineering the car.
What also makes Volvo’s project different from previous autonomous driving research programs we’ve seen is the fact that Volvo will be using real families rather than specially trained drivers for its research. In other words, its cars will have to cope with the unpredictability of the real world without a specialist minder. And while some would argue that Tesla’s Autopilot capabilities — available on certain Model Year Tesla Model S and Tesla model X electric cars — has already broken that barrier, Volvo’s systems will likely focus on a higher level of autonomous driving.
After the first phase of Drive Me London has proven successful with a handful of autonomous vehicles in 2017, Volvo says it will extend the trial early in 2018 to include up to 100 autonomous cars, helping it gather as much data as possible ahead of a commercial launch a few years later. Running concurrently with a similar project taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo’s Drive Me project will likely also spread into other major cities around the world, giving the Swedish automaker a real-world insight into driving patterns and styles around the world.
Why is that important? Without it, Volvo’s autonomous driving vehicles will be nothing more than hesitant automatons. With the knowledge of driving patterns and styles around the world, the Drive Me now project can not only produce driving algorithms for Volvo cars that understand how humans behave but also interact with human-driven vehicles on the roads too.
And that, as any driver who has ever hesitated at a London intersection can tell you, is the difference between safely making a turn and ending up in an expensive fender bender.
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