Volvo is rolling out a pilot scheme for autonomous cars in Gothenburg, which will see 100 cars being leased to members of the public by 2017, with the driverless-cars predicted to be available in the mainstream market by 2024.
The cars run a suite of technologies that are essentially advanced developments of existing camera, radar and laser-based sensors, which allow them to navigate public roads through normal traffic, entirely unaided by the driver. Internet connectivity, detailed mapping information and car-to-car communication will also be heavily relied on, but already the cars will work on normal, existing roads without the need for big changes to the infrastructure. If the technology advances as expected, the cars would also be able to park themselves and then return to pick you up when requested.
Of course, all of the autonomous cars will also have the capacity to be driven ‘manually’, simply by pushing a button.
Though still in its early stages, Volvo sees the new ‘Drive Me’ pilot scheme as a way to find out how autonomous cars can be used to aid traffic flow, reduce environmental impact, investigate what changes to the infrastructure might be beneficial, as well as – crucially – how users will react to being in a car that’s driving itself.
We experienced a section of motorway on the pilot route, which covers 30 miles around Gothenburg, where the car proved very effective. Steering inputs were smooth, and though the sensation of being in a car that’s driving itself is unsettling, it was hard to fault the car’s responses but for some wandering around the wider lanes.
The technology still has a way to go, but legislation is a bigger barrier to the possibility of autonomous cars becoming an everyday reality. Volvo sources admit that they have not yet solved the issues of who would be responsible for insuring a driverless car, nor how to overcome existing legislation that states that a driver must always be in control of their vehicle.
However, given the increasing use of semi-autonomous technology in car safety systems, such as lane-keep assist and automatic parking, and precedents set in other other industries - notably aviation - where similar issues have been overcome, the company is confident that legislation won't be an insurmountable barrier.
In the meantime, it’s likely that elements of the autonomous driving system will trickle into mass-market products, from more advanced automatic-parking through to a system that will stop the car, or even pull it over, if it senses the driver is unresponsive.
So, while Volvo admits that fully autonomous cars, and the company's ambition of entirely accident-free motoring, are a long way away, it still claims that by 2020, no-one will be fatally injured as a result of a crash in a new Volvo.