Premiering 2017: Volvo Autonomous Vehicles

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Count on creative directors, production teams and screenwriters to collaborate outlandish stories and project them on the silver screen. An alien stole our hearts in the 1982 classic, “E.T.” In 1993, terrorizing dinosaurs made it hard to fall asleep after watching the first “Jurassic Park” and in 2008 a lonely robot named Wall-E made us think about life in the future, whether we realized it or not. In 2017, Volvo will make history by doing something so exciting, theaters won’t be able to compete. A fleet of 100 Volvo XC90s will be launched onto the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden — and if everything goes as planned, they will drive themselves.

The Drive Me project began last year as Volvo embarked on learning what it would take to integrate self-driving vehicles into everyday traffic.

“The potential of self-driving vehicles can move society forward toward a more sustainable transportation system. Examples of benefits are traffic flow, energy efficiency and safety,” said director of Drive Me, Marcus Rothoff. “By making adaptions and new solutions in infrastructure, further potential can be explored. With self-driving vehicles — which can be steered more accurately [than regularly operated vehicles] — lanes can be made narrower allowing efficient use of space. This can open up the possibility to add additional lanes or even new cycle lanes along urban motorways.”

Volvo predicts autonomous vehicle technology will have several societal and consumer benefits. With their 2017 goal approaching fast, a team from Volvo as well as legislators, transportation authorities and the city of Gothenburg are all working hard to ensure a sustainable mobility and a crash-free future.

Ever found yourself wishing there were more than 24 hours in a day? Think about all the things you could do if you had 30 extra minutes before work in the morning or 15 extra minutes at night. One of the primary goals Drive Me technology hopes to capture is the time you lose while driving.

“Autonomous driving will fundamentally change the way we look at driving in the future. You will be able to choose between autonomous and active driving,” said senior vice president of research and development of Volvo car group, Dr. Peter Mertens.

This is possible because of the complex network of sensors, cloud-based positioning systems and intelligent braking and steering technologies. Volvo’s sensor technologies generate exact positioning and a complete 360-degree view around the vehicle by using a combination of multiple radars, cameras and laser sensors. According to Volvo, a network of computers processes the information and creates a real-time map of moving and stationary objects in the environment. This information will help the vehicles further position themselves safely on the road.

“The map will consist of all the features in the environment the vehicle can see, like road markings, traffic signs and road barriers,” said technical expert of Dependability and Verification and team leader of Autonomous Drive, Jonas Nilsson. “When the car drives on the road, it can compare what it currently sees with the information on the map.”

Cloud services connect to the traffic authority control centers to make sure the most up-to-date traffic information is always available. By matching the 360-degree imaging with the map, the vehicle can tell where it is and choose the best possible route for where it’s going. Don’t worry, control center operators also have the ability to tell drivers to turn off the autonomous drive mode if necessary, so rouge cars ruling the roadways can still only happen in the movies.

Volvo currently boasts some of the safest cars on the road. Their popular XC90 model is one of them. It is no surprise Volvo has deemed it the vehicle for the job and plans on all 100 cars in the test fleet being XC90s. The team does not plan on modifying the body of the XC90, but the autonomous version of the SUV will include redundant sensing over the entire car, allowing it to avoid collisions more efficiently than a standard vehicle.

“To avoid accidents when the car is not at fault, it will also drive cautiously and keep sufficient safety margins at all times,” Nilsson said. “Even in the case of a blowout, the car will be able to detect it and bring itself to a safe stop.”

Volvo’s autonomous cars will still need traditional services like oil changes and tire rotations. Because the service intervals are not affected by the self-driving technology, experts predict the actual intervals will be similar to how they are currently. However, as with any new technology, automotive professionals will need to be educated to service cameras, control units and radars. Experts still aren’t sure how Drive Me technology will affect the automotive aftermarket as a whole, but they learn more every day.

“We will learn more about this once we are able to deploy the technology. Most of the new technology is electronic. The software can monitor itself, and there isn’t wear and tear associated with this technology like there is with mechanical parts,” said technical specialist for Volvo Cars, Dr. Erik Coelingh. “For the first 100 vehicles, we will monitor the performance very carefully, and we can update/service the cars when needed. As far as what [effect it will have on the industry] long-term, we don’t know yet.”

It goes without saying, there are many challenges when trying to build a self-driving vehicle. The primary one is to design an autopilot car that can safely handle complicated traffic scenarios and technical faults. Although drivers have the ability to intervene, depending on the situation, they may not be able to do so immediately. The technology must be airtight.

“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,” Coelingh said.

Keeping prices low with active safety system packages, like the ones planned to be incorporated to the autonomous XC90s, is a challenge, too — but one Volvo is ready for.

“The price tag isn’t yet set, but we don’t foresee the price to be higher than today’s driver support/active safety system packages,” said Volvo Car’s director of government affairs, Karl-Johan Runnberg.

Volvo plans on keeping prices under control by sharing select information they gather with the automotive industry.

“We will build up knowledge and technology that we don’t share with competitors because of commercial reasons, but there will be aspects that can be of mutual interest,” Coelingh said. “For example, findings in legal regulations we develop in Sweden or design methods can lead to industry standards. It’s beneficial for the automotive industry to have standards in safety regulations, tools or even common components to reduce prices.”

One hundred Volvo customers will be carefully selected in and around Gothenburg to test the group of Drive Me pilot SUVs in their daily lives.

“Ideally, these customers will represent our customer base. It will be a mix of older and younger drivers, including those who are experienced, inexperienced, early adopters and skeptics. By doing this, we want to learn how people want to use the technology and how they perceive it. The intention is to lease the vehicle as we would any other car. They will not have to pay the full cost for the technology as it is part of a research project,” Coelingh said.

Initially, autonomous mode will only be available on carefully selected roads. These roads will be chosen by the Drive Me team with several conditions in mind. They won’t have oncoming traffic, cyclists or pedestrians. The roads will also be pre-scanned, so the vehicle can gather all the information it needs to drive as safe as possible.

“I think it’s most important for real customers to [experience] autonomous driving in real traffic in a real environment. We need their input to build trust in the functionality and have solutions ready,” Rothoff said.

Are other countries ready to accept autonomous car technology? Volvo experts think the United States is among the pack.

“We think the U.S. is an interesting market for the autonomous drive. The customer demand — commuters in mega cities — is high, road conditions are appropriate and the authorities are positive,” Runnberg said.

Don’t hang your hat on having extra time in your day just yet. Volvo experts first must make it past the Drive Me pilot before they can diffuse the technology further.

“Depending on how successful this pilot is, autonomous driving will expand to new cities. But, it is difficult to speculate how fast implementation of autonomous driving will be,” Rothoff said.

Like the movies, count on the future of driving and the automotive industry to always have plot twists, but count on driving to always be exhilarating.

“It is not our ambition to replace the driver. Rather, it is to provide drivers with a choice,” Coelingh said. “If driving is boring — in a traffic jam — press a button and have the car drive automatically. But if you’re on a long, curvy road in the mountains, you can still enjoy the acceleration and steering. The choice is yours!”

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