Getting streets ahead with Volvo’s driverless car

Automated cars could be about to make driving a thing of the past. We grabbed a rare opportunity to take a prototype of Volvo’s driverless vehicle out on the road and track.

Volvo’s driverless vehicle will let those behind the wheel use other devices while travelling. Courtesy Volvo
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Cars, by and large, remained relatively unchanged for much of the 20th century. Yes, they became faster and more powerful as the decades flew by in a cloud of exhaust fumes; safety and comfort incrementally improved – but fundamentally, the combustion-engined car ended the century as it began.

The way human beings and cars interact is changing. We’re already seeing how the connected car will change our in-car experience, but an even more revolutionary step is on the horizon. Get ready for the self-driving car.

For those of you who enjoy driving – especially if you have a car that’s a bit tasty on a twisting back road – this will probably sound like your worst nightmare, another of life’s pleasures to be snatched away from you. But the reality for the vast majority of drivers means that letting a vehicle do the driving for us could improve the quality of our lives no end.

Take road safety, for example. According to the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, 1.24 million people lose their lives on the world’s roads every year. In addition, up to 50 million more suffer non-fatal injuries, with many becoming disabled as a result of their injuries. Studies show that 90 to 95 per cent of collisions are caused by human error. So if we’re to blame for most road deaths, shouldn’t we stop ­driving?

Then there’s traffic congestion, a problem that’s getting worse, because we’re buying more cars than ever and the world’s population is becoming increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas (the UN estimates that by 2050, 50 per cent of us will be living in cities). We’re all living on top of one another, but at the same time we all still want personal mobility, which clogs up the roads.

Factor in the need to find some way to develop more efficient and sustainable cars, with more environmentally friendly propulsion systems, and it’s clear that something needs to be done.

In many ways, self-driving cars are a logical progression of the capabilities that automobiles have been developing over the past couple of decades. Adaptive cruise control, lane assist, blind-spot detection, city emergency braking and park-assist technology all show how our cars are highly advanced machines.

The building blocks – the software systems, the cameras and radar sensors – are therefore already in existence and fitted to an increasing number of models. The next step is to connect them all together and allow them to take control of a car on the public highway.

It’s quite a step to take, though. Think of all the practicalities of a self-driving car in among the mass of cars driven by us mere human drivers, with our unpredictable behaviour and tendencies to become distracted. Then there are the legal questions about who’s responsible if something does go wrong, plus the insurance implications. A carmaker, as a multinational corporation with a lot to lose, would have to be pretty brave to take the plunge.

But one has: Volvo. With its reputation for safety innovation, it was always a likely candidate to take the lead in self-driving cars. So, in 2017, its Drive Me project will give 100 Gothenburg-based Volvo customers cars with self-driving capability for two years. Using cameras, radar, lasers, map data and GPS, a connection to the cloud and a dedicated traffic-control centre, the drivers will be able to switch the cars into an autonomous driving mode on a 50-kilometre stretch of multi-lane road around the city, at speeds of up to 70kph.

The project is designed not only to test the technology in a real-world setting, but also to try to understand how autonomous driving will affect society, what infrastructure changes will be required, what real-world situations would create difficulties and to highlight how car consumers could benefit from handing control of driving over to the ­vehicle.

The prototype of the car Volvo will use is already running on the road, being tested by Volvo’s engineers. I’m sat alongside Peter Hardå, the project leader, as he drives the V60 testbed on part of the Drive Me route. He emphasises that the car is still very much a prototype and that his team are still fine-tuning the complex electronic systems in the car (the boot is filled with a rack containing computer equipment, complete with blinking and flashing lights and diodes), but as he does so, he activates the self-driving feature. Hardå retains his focus on the road, as he’s technically (and legally) still in charge of the car – but the car is doing all the work. The steering wheel constantly adjusts the car’s trajectory on the dual carriageway, keeping it within the lane markings. Well, ­mostly: at one point, the car is momentarily confused by the markings as two lanes merge, but frankly, I’ve seen humans get more confused about where they should position the car.

Soon, the car faces a real test, when a pair of cars merge from a slip road on to the road ahead of us. Would our car slow itself and hold back as the two cars pulled in front of us?

It passes with flying colours. It brakes smoothly and slows sufficiently to allow the cars to filter in front of us, hanging back slightly until a safe stopping distance is re-established. Hardå admits that his foot was resting on the brake, just in case the car wasn’t able to react quickly enough, but, in this case, human intervention is ­redundant.

The 30-minute on-road demonstration proves that while Volvo’s technology is impressively advanced, it’s still experimental. The engineers in charge of preparing the car for 2017 are used to its current foibles, so it’s not quite ready to be driven by amateurs such as myself. However, a test track is a different matter.

Volvo is also trialing a brand-new test facility in Sweden called AstaZero, which contains a 5.7km road around the perimeter, designed to replicate a typical rural Swedish road. This is where I have the chance to experience a self-driving car for myself.

Sitting alongside me in the passenger seat is Erik Coelingh, one of Volvo’s senior engineers, who asks me to start the car and drive on to the rural road. Once on its freshly laid tarmac, Coelingh tells me to press a button on the steering wheel. I press it and… well, the car just starts driving itself.

It follows the road, staying between the centre line and the Armco, the steering wheel turning autonomously. It’s a very strange sensation, sitting behind it, watching it move all by itself – and not a little uncomfortable. Not only am I not touching the pedals, but I’ve also ceded control of the steering wheel.

As I explain my reservations to Coelingh, he says one of the main research goals Volvo hopes Drive Me will achieve is to ensure that consumers feel able to trust the car to cope with all eventualities. They’re not there yet.

“It’s not a huge challenge to make a car drive itself on a facsimile of a quiet rural road,” he says. ‘The real challenge is to be able to make it work in all possible scenarios, all circumstances.

“For example, debris on the road is one of the most difficult scenarios, as it can differ in size and shape. It’s very difficult for sensors to determine exactly what is in front of the car. But humans are well trained in recognising something unusual on the road.”

After a lap of the road, I’m asked to put my foot on the brake to disable the autonomous system and pull off the road. The most surprising thing is that after just 10 minutes, even I have started to get used to the self-driving system, relying on it guiding me along the road.

I come away from that brief insight into the future more convinced than ever that self-driving cars are inevitable. Not only will they improve our lives, but also we’ll quickly learn to rely on them. Like our smartphones, cars with autonomous capabilities will give us the ability to perform tasks in new ways and new environments, which will very quickly become second nature. We’ll soon be behind the wheel of a car and, after switching it to self-driving mode, we’ll be able to use that time on the road to read, communicate with others, watch a film, surf the web, work and even sleep – anything other than getting stressed and frustrated by traffic jams. Indeed, some early research has suggested that if something else is doing the driving, we’re more willing to accept our car going at a slower speed.

With driver distraction likely to become a hot topic over the coming years, as connected cars potentially give us more opportunities to spend less of our concentration on driving, and a new generation of “digital natives” being more willing to see driving as the distraction, rather than the devices that are central to their lives (their smartphones, tablets and whatever the likes of Apple and Samsung will develop in the next decade), self-driving cars could offer a solution.

And, as Volvo’s tests show, they’re not that far away: they could be in showrooms by 2025 for the early adopters and in all our garages and driveways within 30 years – making fatal collisions a thing of the past, easing congestion and allowing us all to take control of more of our lives.

That doesn’t exactly seem like a nightmare, does it?

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