Inside Volvo’s Self-Driving Car Independent Study Project – Pro Dev
Inside Volvo's self-driving car: Improving driver safety without the driver
Autonomous cars are coming soon, and Volvo wants to be there first. The company is pledging to have self-driving autos on sale by 2017, and by 2020 wants to build a nearly uncrashable car. Join us in Sweden for an early test ride.
It's a rainy day in Volvo's hometown of Gothenburg. Lingering showers churned from the deep forests of Sweden pass overhead, drenching the road. And the S60 sedan we're in. The driver pays little attention to the rain, continuing to talk in an animated fashion with his hands. Both hands. He could be talking with his feet too, if he'd like, as right now they're equally unnecessary.
The black sedan with green graphics in which we cruise is not a typical Volvo, though other than the teal vinyl there's little on the outside to distinguish it from a car you could buy today. A pair of white, hockey puck-size discs on the roof the only bits of flare that differentiate this from any of the company's other cars, and indeed that's part of the point. This is Volvo's take on a self-driving car, a version of which the company pledges to have on sale by 2017.
You don't need to check the calendar to know that's not far away. In an industry once typified by five-year refresh cycles and a slow, begrudging adoption of technology, three years seems like an impossibly short runway from which to launch a car that can drive itself. Or it would be, had Volvo didn't have something of a running start.
Look at the self-driving test vehicles from Ford or Google and you'll see machines festooned with additional sensors, eyes, and ears that make up for the somewhat blind nature of their base autos. Yes, Volvo's car also has some extras on the roof, but those extra GPS modules are simply an extra safety blanket during the testing of this car. They're not really needed.
Volvo already manufactures cars that have all the laser, radar, sonar, and visual sensing equipment needed for autonomous driving. It makes up the company's City Safety program, currently available in the US as part of a $2,100 technology package. A forward looking camera and laser scanner are built into a pod on the windshield, tucked behind the rear-view mirror, while a radar system lives in the nose, hidden beside the company's unapologetically masculine logo.
"The car assists the driver, warns the driver, and then automatically brakes and steers away," said Anders Eugensson, Volvo Cars' director of government affairs. Eugensson is a slim man with cropped, steel gray hair, ice blue eyes, and the friendly, soft-spoken manner that seems common among Swedes. The functionality he describes largely stays out of the way, only making itself known immediately before an impending accident -- a distracted pedestrian or oncoming car wandering into your lane.
The sensor package that enables City Safety is just the latest of a long list of safety innovations that reach back to the beginning of the company. Laminated glass, three-point seatbelts, side-impact airbags, whiplash-preventing headrests... all things that Volvo invented or adopted as standard equipment well before the rest of the industry.
Eugensson calls this the "step-by-step development of driver safety." Autonomous driving is the next step. "Now we say we want the car to do everything. That's quite a bit more complex." There's still a long way to go. A lot of training for the car, a lot of learning for the engineers, and still more technology needed. Many of Volvo's cars already make use of wireless connectivity, but direct vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications are the final missing technological pieces. These will enable the cars to know of poor road conditions, disabled cars, and