Volvo hunt for brand-friendly customers in driverless pilot scheme

Volvo has admitted that while cash paying customers will be using autonomous driving technology equipped Volvo XC90s next year it has yet to decide on all the details of bringing real-world testing to public roads.

Its Drive Me trial starts in 2017 when 100 customers will drive IntelliSafe Autopilot provisioned cars on some of Gothenburg’s most popular commuter routes. These roads have been chosen as ‘safe’ suburban environments, with average speeds of 70km/h (44mph), pedestrian free and with widely separated lanes.

Volvo Marcus Rothoff, Drive Me project leader, told TU-Automotive that the autonomous features of the XC90s will be gradually introduced into the pilot customers’ driving experience.

Rothoff said: “We are currently working with building up the technology, software, sensors and the control algorithms. At the moment we are using Volvo engineers testing on test tracks but gradually we will let customers have the cars driving on public roads so we can see what their expectations are.

“Basically we will be able to offer assisted driving on those specified roads around Gothenburg where we feel the risk is limited and where we can offer autonomous functionality.”

Rothoff said Volvo’s main focus remains on safety and that is why the technology will be fed in slowly so that data can be gathered and analysed before moving over to completely autonomous driving.

He explained “We will gradually open up the technology when it has been shown to be robust enough for them to lean back and read a magazine. Of course, to start with at least, there will be some supervision to make sure we have a truly robust solution.

“In some sense it’s rather like three years ago when we started putting a real car on the road and it’s about when we have enough validated information that we can make a switch in responsibility [from man to machine]. So the car will be able to work in a similar way but we will not be able to transfer complete responsibility from the start of the project.”

Drive Me is a joint venture between Volvo and the country’s authorities including the Swedish Transport Administration and the Swedish Transport Agency. In this way any legal or regulatory concerns can be ironed out as the project advances, said Rothoff.

Nonetheless, he admitted the factory has no accurate timeframe for expecting customers to use fully autonomous driving functions.

“It’s difficult to estimate when that switch in responsibility can occur,” Rothoff said. “But the cars capable of it will be on the public roads in 2017 and this will depend on how we can build up factual data and whether we need to change something then it will take more time, of course.”

Also the programme will not be open to all comers and the manufacturer will vet the 100 applicants to match them with the profile of the typical Volvo owner.

Rothoff explained: “What’s most important for us is to have a variety of customers that reflects our future owners so the research we do is validated on having the similar kind of customers who will buy into this functionality in the future. We have built up a profile for these customers based on age, where they are living and those people who will use the cars as much as possible to build up enough data.

“Of course, they will also be the customers who will be commuting on the specific routes we have chosen so that we can build up as much data as possible on the autonomous driving mode. Our aim is to take over the boring part of the commute on more urban highways where there are a lot of queues and slow moving traffic where we have seen a lot of problems from driver distractions so we will start on the larger road infrastructure within the urban area.”

Rothoff admitted that Volvo will have to insure the experimental driverless cars internally probably within a leasing or rental package offered to the trial batch of customers although costs to the consumer have also yet to be finalised.

But he is confident the manufacturer’s technology and approach will overcome the sort of challenges that plagued the VAG coast-to-coast US journey last year where tumbleweed and other environmental influences caused the car to stop unnecessarily.

“We have thought about these problems from the other way round,” Rothoff said. “We will take all the safety knowledge we have and how collisions happen. So we have designed a technical solutions where we will restrict the autonomous functions for each specific road.

“For example, we will only allow autonomous driving on specific road sections so the car has to be on the section before the feature can be loaded. Then a request goes up to the Cloud and if there is a blizzard on its way then the functionality would not be offered in that scenario.

“Maybe, sometime in the future, sensor development may be able to cope with these events but that is not the point we have to start from.”

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