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Volvo to Launch First-of-Its-Kind Autonomous Car Program

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Courtesy of Volvo

Photo courtesy of Volvo

Volvo has announced it will test its self-driving cars with regular folks on public roads in what is being called a first-of-its-kind effort to bring autonomous cars to market. Although Volvo mentioned this back in 2013, as this blog reported, the new announcement, made in an online press conference, introduces the “ordinary people” (as opposed to professional test “drivers”) component.

The testing, to involve 100 people, will take place in 2017, as Alex Davies reports for Wired. Davies quotes Erik Coelingh, a technical specialist at Volvo:

It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle, but if you want to create an impact in the real world, you have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers.’ 

The testing, Davies writes, will be done on 30 miles of roads in Gothenburg, the town where Volvo’s headquarters is located. Those roads will be mostly urban highways — without pedestrians, bicyclists, or oncoming traffic, he writes. The Volvo model that will be used in Drive Me is the new XC90 SUV, which is already semi-autonomous, Davies notes.

Volvo will select typical Volvo customers as the “drivers” (i.e., people who sit in the cars), hoping to include among them those who are skeptical about autonomous-vehicle technology, Davies writes. Although articles about the benefits of self-driving vehicles (including ones this blog has written) say the cars would free people up to be distracted, impaired, or drowsy, Davies writes that for its Drive Me program, Volvo will choose people who are “sober, awake and alert whenever they’re in the car, and ready to take over if the car encounters tricky conditions like rough weather or debris in the road.”

However, the vehicle’s computers that make autonomous operation possible are expected to do better than human drivers in emergencies such as imminent car accidents, Davies writes. Drive Me’s goal is to determine how autonomous vehicles manage in real-world conditions, such as on roads with vehicles driven by humans. The testing will provide Volvo with additional data it can use to further enhance the technology — data that will also help regulators better understand how self-driving vehicles can work on public roads, Davies writes.

DeZeen magazine quotes a Volvo executive:

‘We are entering uncharted territory in the field of autonomous driving,’ explained Volvo’s research and development chief Peter Mertens. ‘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.’

The Drive Me system will make it possible for humans to choose between autonomous and active driving, DeZeen writes. Its components will include radar, ultrasonic sensors, and a high-performance GPS, all of which will work together to assess potential collision risks, analyze traffic, and choose optimum routes to improve traffic flow, DeZeen writes.

Coelingh said that Drive Me needs to be more than 99% reliable, that it needs to be “much closer to 100%” before it is worthy of mixing with human-driven vehicles, DeZeen writes. If the Drive Me testing goes well, Volvo looks to expand the trial, Davies writes. It is hoped that the trial comes to the US, but the UK might be more desirable for automakers, since it is about to implement “a super hands-off approach to self-driving car testing,” Davies writes. Volvo has as its goal no Volvo-related deaths or serious injuries by the year 2020, he notes.


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