It's date night. You want it to be super special.
Pulling up to the restaurant, you notice there’s no valet. Then it starts to rain—and you forgot to bring an umbrella. What's your next move? (A) Leave your significant other standing in the cold, while you try to park quickly and race back to the restaurant before the rain wrinkles you and ruins the evening; or (B) Push a button on your iPhone that instructs the car to park itself.
Option B, it turns out, is not as farfetched as it sounds. Most of the technologies needed to equip your car with a self-parking capability are available today—adaptive cruise control, mitigated braking, steer-by-wire, the whole deal. The only element missing is the intelligent driving software, the artificial intelligence that will allow a car to think and react like a human would behind the wheel. Now Volvo says that’s only a few short years away, and invited me to Gothenburg, Sweden, the company’s hometown, to prove it.
So what does a car that parks itself look like?
Aside from the teal-colored tribal graphics and white lettering announcing that that the black sedan was part of Volvo's "Drive Me—Self-Driving Cars for Sustainable Mobility" pilot project, it looks, surprisingly, like your typical Volvo S60 sedan.
While other autonomous prototypes—such as one Google’s driverless automobiles, for instance—feature freakishly gaudy roof-mounted sensory arrays and interiors full of computers and other diagnostic equipment, the exterior and interior of this special edition S60 is clean and uncluttered.
Even so, it possesses all of the electronic bells and whistles needed to self-navigate. It’s equipped with a forward-looking camera and laser scanner mounted in a pod behind the rearview mirror; a RADAR system buried in the nose of the vehicle; and sonar emitters placed at strategic points around the car. It does have a GPS on the roof, but the two small, unobtrusive discs are easily overlooked.
And let’s not forget the host of driver-assist technologies that lurk under the vehicle’s taut sheet metal. Except for the software and Adaptive Cruise Control with steer assist (which allows for automatic following of the vehicle ahead and will be available on the next-gen XC90 by year’s end), the S60 mule (test vehicle) is not equipped a bunch of space-age gizmos. Instead, the technologies are already available on most Volvo models. For instance, the cameras, RADAR, and LIDAR sensors enable such driver-assist features as Volvo's City Safety and Pedestrian Detection (both part of a technology package that runs about $2,100) with Full Auto Brake and Lane Keeping Assist. By using and improving on existing technologies, the transition from driven to driverless will be that much faster. The R&D is done.
After a brief presentation on the Drive Me pilot project, which is scheduled to start in 2017 (more on that in a bit), Function Developer Mikael Thor of Volvo’s Autonomous driving group lead us to a closed off area within Gothenburg’s Lindholmen Science Park, located across from the Lindholmspiren ferry stop on the north bank of Gota Alv. We huddled together in a tent—for safety reasons, we weren’t allowed to ride in the vehicle—and Thor opened the mobile app of his iPhone, pressed the "park now" button and the modified S60 sedan slowly drove itself to a designated spot, shifted into reverse, backed in, and powered off. After a few seconds, he pressed "pick me up now" button. The car started, put itself in gear, and slowly returned to the location from where it began the short journey. No human necessary.
Truly amazing, right? Yes and no. Not all was as it appeared. Thor admitted that the car was traveling on a predetermined trajectory. Its path was pre-programmed before the test. All of the car’s self-driving features and app triggers were the real deal. Unfortunately, it does not yet track on its own.
So was the whole demo an elaborate trick? On one hand, no. Volvo’s self-parking system has to be one of the most elegant executions of the technology to date. No automaker has been able to pull off self-parking without pre-programming the car. On the other, yes. The car didn’t find that spot or its way back to the starting position by itself. It’s sort of like BMW’s ultimate driverless machine demonstration at CES 2014 earlier this year in Las Vegas.
Bottom line: Both demonstration were impressive, and proved that with the right software, the autonomous vehicles can work incredibly well.
But can Volvo put it on the road by 2017? That’s the plan. Although other developers—including BMW, Google, Mercedes-Benz, even Volvo—have tested self-driving autos on public roads before, Drive Me is the first real-world, large-scale autonomous car study that any automaker has undertaken. The plan is to unleash 100 fully autonomous lease vehicles on approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers) of selected roads in and around the city of Gothenburg.
According to Anders Eugensson, Volvo's director of government affairs and a key safety strategist, the joint initiative between Volvo and various Swedish government agencies will examine how self-driving cars will handle everyday conditions, such as driving in slow-moving congested urban conditions and on highways, and how normal cars and drivers interact with them.
"The test cars are now able to handle lane following, speed adaption and merging traffic all by themselves," says Eugensson. "This is an important step towards our aim that the final ‘Drive Me’ cars will be able to drive the whole test route in highly autonomous mode. The technology, which will be called Autopilot, enables the driver to hand over the driving to the vehicle, which takes care of all driving functions. It will give us an insight into the technological challenges at the same time as we get valuable feedback from real customers driving on public roads."
The project is currently in the customer research and technology development phase. "There's still a long way to go before fully autonomous cars hit the road," says Eugensson. "A lot of training for the car, a lot of learning for the engineers, and still more technology is needed, such as direct vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications." Both of which Gothenberg will reportedly have by 2017. A functioning vehicle-to-infrastructure system is still required—this will allow road impediments to be broadcasted out to the cars so they can safely anticipate and avoid them, even before they come into view.
At this point, the vehicles have progressed to where they can now adapt their speeds, follow traffic, and deal with merging vehicles. And that means we were able to take them for a ride, but not without a chaperone. During our trip around a pre-approved loop, Volvo technical expert of Autonomous Drive, Dr. Stefan Solyom, was both escort and technical tour guide. It’s worth noting that this part of the demo was not pre-programmed. The cars driving with AI were operating without a digital net, so to speak. If it hesitated, Solyom would have to step in.
City streets were off limit, but once on the throughway, Solyom turned on the Autopilot with a quick press of a button on the steering wheel—similar to engaging cruise control—and we were off. Immediately, the car felt confident and stable. It tracked well, but didn’t always hold the center of the lane. It wandered a bit side-to-side when recovering from a particularly sweeping turn, and after Solyom changed lanes to let a faster driver by.
It also obeyed all traffic signs and speed limits; things that the car’s forward-facing optical camera can capture, read, and interpret. However, the car can't change lanes to pass slower drivers or let faster drivers go by. That is something it needs to learn. Same goes for avoiding work zones or other lane closures. When we encountered those parts of the road, Solyom had to take over.
Still, it was another impressive display. But the Drive Me project isn’t just about proving that self-driving cars work. It is also designed to show that self-driving cars are safer and more fuel efficient than their human-controlled counterparts. Eugensson says that research suggests that 90% to 95% of traffic accidents are the result of human error, either due to negligence (drunk driving, distracted driving, falling asleep) or simply because a driver failed to avoid a preventable accident: "If you can eliminate driver error," he says, "you can eliminate nearly all accidents, as well as the resulting injuries and fatalities." Research also suggests that autonomous driving can cut fuel consumption by up to 50% in certain conditions.
For now, Volvo will require that drivers stay attentive and ready to take over driving duties at all times. The company is testing an infrared camera system plus other sensors that will detect a driver's current state of readiness. Should the driver fall asleep or suffer a medical emergency the car will be able to come to a safe stop. If he or she is just inattentive, they will be warned, audibly or visually.
The big goal of this project and all of Volvo's driverless and assisting innovations is its Vision2020 pledge. The company wants its cars to be so safe that not a single driver or passenger is killed or seriously injured in one of its vehicles by 2020.
Meanwhile, Volvo has said it will lease 100 of these Level 3 autonomous cars to the citizens of Gothenberg by 2017. Other cities should soon follow—the company has looked at Los Angeles and Shanghai as possible next destinations for its near-future tech.
[Images Courtesy of Volvo]