Can autonomous cars bring us freedom?
For the busy executive, salesman or businessman autonomous cars will be a life changer – an opportunity to give time back to people.
That’s the view of Anders Eugensson, director of government affairs at Volvo, part of a cross-functional team responsible for defining the brand’s long-term safety strategy.
He describes the advance of autonomous drive (AD) as the most exciting time in his 32-career with the company.
“We can change peoples’ lives,” he said.
“Time spent in congested traffic when they can get on with their work rather than sitting in frustration. It can give them more time to spend with their families. With autonomous drive we can sit back and let the car do the driving while we get connected and stay on top of our work.”
Volvo is very much at the forefront of AD technology. Its ‘Drive Me’ project has been running a fleet of 100 vehicles around the busy ring-road in its home city of Gothenburg in Sweden with selected drivers using the cars autonomously on their daily commute.
Drive Me is now spreading to the UK and China. Erik Coelingh, technical specialist at Volvo said: “The test cars are now able to handle lane following, speed adaption and merging traffic all by themselves. 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.”
The project involves all the key players: Volvo, the Swedish Transport Administration, the Swedish Transport Agency, Lindholmen Science Park and the City of Gothenburg as well as customers.
AD is an important step towards Volvo’s 20/20 vision, announced in 2008, that no one would be killed or seriously injured in one of its cars by the year 2020. Eugensson said that while the older generation may feel a little uncomfortable about giving up control, younger people will adapt more easily. “Older people currently find connectivity a distraction, for younger people it’s a necessity,” he added.
This does not mean the fun will go out of driving completely. A fully autonomous vehicle parc is unlikely to be with us for another 30 years. In the meantime cars will be able to drive themselves on highways or city roads, but out on the country lanes the driver will still be able to take control.
Following on from the Gothenburg experiment, Volvo will start similar trials from next year or early 2018 on major routes into London.
Eugensson said that Volvo is talking to a number of companies who have employees using these routes as their regular commute, to take part in the scheme. Company engineers will also be involved gathering data.
Volvo also plans to launch China’s most advanced autonomous driving experiment on public roads and is in negotiations with interested cities in China to see which is able to provide the necessary permissions, regulations and infrastructure to allow the experiment to go ahead. AD promises to revolutionise China’s heavily congested roads in four main areas – safety, congestion, pollution and time saving.
To achieve AD, Volvo has developed one of the industry’s most advanced and easy-to-use interfaces to oversee how drivers will transfer control to a car’s autonomous driving mode.
The advent of autonomous driving technology means that the relationship between a driver and a car’s user interface is of crucial significance. A safe and seamless handover of control is the cornerstone of any new trustworthy AD technology.
Volvo Cars has designed its IntelliSafe Auto Pilot to be simple and intuitive. The autonomous mode is activated and deactivated with specially designed paddles on the steering wheel.
When entering a route where autonomous driving is available, the car gives the driver a message that the Auto Pilot is ready. At the same time, lights on the steering-wheel paddles start flashing.
The driver pulls both paddles simultaneously to activate autonomous mode. The lights on the paddles then change to constant green and Auto Pilot confirms that the driving and the supervision has been delegated to the car.
When autonomous driving is no longer available, the driver is prompted to take over again. A 60-second countdown is displayed.
Volvo’s new IntelliSafe Auto Pilot will be available for the first time on the 100 XC90s it is making available for the Drive Me project in Gothenburg in 2017, the world’s most ambitious AD project.
This is currently ‘level 4’ in autonomous drive-speak. Relatively straight roads with traffic separated by clearly defined lanes.
The next stage, level 5, is dealing with roundabouts, intersections, cyclists and pedestrians etc, which is when the technology moves into the city.
However, he sees the current growth in car sharing allied to autonomous valet parking, as a “game changer”. He added:
“Imagine pulling up outside your house, unloading your groceries and then telling the car to go and park itself.”
As well as freeing up time, driverless cars will be able to ease congestion and speed journey times, said Eugensson.
It will allow ‘platoons’ to travel at greater speed with less separation. “It may allow additional lanes within existing roads and even change the shape of the vehicles we drive.”
The big challenge, he said, is interaction with other road users such as cyclists, pedestrians and even animals. The car will have to anticipate the likelihood of any danger and respond accordingly by perhaps slowing speed or moving to the centre of the road. In the event of any failure, the car will also need to move out of the traffic or a platoon to find a ‘safe harbour’.
Eugensson admitted that different regulations around the world remain a road block to development but added that the UK’s commitment to being a leader in the development of autonomous drive, having not signed the Vienna Convention which calls for a human to be in control at all times, is very helpful to Volvo’s research. He believes that the UK and the US will see the first take up of driverless vehicles.