20 February 2015 - Volvo yesterday held an online press conference in which it unveiled the technology behind its Drive Me programme, which it claims will be the first large scale, real world testing of autonomous vehicles, using real cars, with regular drivers in normal city traffic.
The Swedish manufacture has partnered with the Gothenburg city authorities, legislators, and transport authorities, and will select 100 representative Volvo customers to try out a self-driving mode on versions of its XC90 SUV on selected roads around Gothenburg by 2017.
In the press event Dr Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President Research and Development of Volvo Car Group, said the main motivation behind the research was that automation is the only way Volvo could realistically see how it will achieve its target of zero road casualties in new Volvo’s by 2020 - although he did think the technology will take some time until commercially available, and after an ‘evolutionary’ process of development to come.
For the trials, the Volvo drivers will be required to be in the the driver’s seat, sober, but while in self-driving mode, won’t need to hold the steering wheel.
Testing fault-tolerant systems in real by controlled urban highway conditions
Volvo Cars claims to have designed a complete production-viable autonomous driving system, with a complex network of sensors, cloud-based positioning systems and intelligent braking and steering technologies. However, in the video Dr Erik Coelingh, Technical Specialist at Volvo Cars, made clear that the real world-testing was required in order to have data.
“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”, he was reported as saying in the official write up afterwards (but I don’t think he actually said impact - so take a look!).
Dr Coelingh made clear that Volvo already have detailed knowledge of the performance of sensors, and are aware that they can be compromised in certain conditions, such as by solar glare and heavy snow.
They have built in layers of redundancies to deal with that but will analyse any incidents and learnt from any mistakes, including by using self-learning systems.
Self-driving will only be allowed along urban highways with a barrier between approaching traffic and lower likelihood of pedestrians and cyclists.
Separately, Elizabeth Box, head of research at the RAC Foundation, is reported to have stated that ensuring roads are up to standard would be vital to ensure that automated vehicles would work. She also said that there were questions as to how driverless cars would interact with pedestrians and cyclists. The RAC Foundation is on the advisory board of[the £8m Gateway project to evaluate driverless technology in Greenwich and Box said that there were a number of major challenges.
“The toughest challenge will be for the system to work in exceptional conditions - you can’t entirely predict what can fall of the back of a truck in front of you”, said Volvo's Dr Coelingh in yesterday's press conference.
“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,” says Dr Mertens. “This transforms everyday commuting from lost time to quality time, opening up new opportunities for work and pleasure.”