Volvo stakes its claim to a driverless future

Company car fleet drivers could form the first major market sector to see autonomous vehicles on our roads.

That’s because, according to Volvo’s CEO Håkan Samuelsson, the commercial advantages of having business staff able to function at a high level while their cars are performing the driving task will make the technology indispensable for the go-ahead company.

The Swedish manufacturer enjoys a well-established business fleet profile so for it to be first on the block with a driverless car solution is a big incentive to get the tech to market sooner rather than later.

Speaking to TU-Automotive at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, Samuelsson said: “Autonomous driving, I am convinced, will be the most attractive feature in a car that has been released in many, many years. That’s because, suddenly, it will allow you, as the consumer or driver, to use hours of wasted time in a more productive way and that has a huge value. You switch this on through the cruise control and then sit back to concentrate on a telephone call and to use your car as an office and that, of course, increases the value of the car enormously.

“Once you have a tick box for the consumer ‘I want to have autopilot on my car’ then you up the price of the car. We think we can have a car that is both electric and autonomous – it’s really not that far away. This will be Level 4 to Level 5 and able to be a totally unsupervised autonomous drive. However, it will still be a driver’s car when you switch off the autopilot because I think that is what people also want to have from a premium car. You want to be able to drive it. You shouldn’t be thinking about fully autonomous with no possibility of a driver because that would be a product more for taxi companies.”

Samuelsson said Volvo will come to market with a fully autonomous autopilot capable car as early as 2020, adding: “It may not be the biggest selling to begin with but once you have tried it, I think that you will never want to buy a car without it. In the future, it will be a no-brainer just like navigation systems.”

He also ruled out the prospect of restricting driverless vehicles to special autonomous-only roads. “We have to accept there will be a mixed traffic situation because it’s [economically] impossible to special roads for autonomous cars,” Samuelsson explained. “So that’s one of the challenges – how will that work out, how will manual drivers react when they see an autonomous vehicle coming towards them?

“We have been discussing this a lot and we don’t want to put stickers on autonomous cars because this might trigger some provocation from manual drivers who may want to test the technology. These drivers have to learn to live with autonomous cars on the roads while autonomous cars will have to learn to live with manually driven cars with all the risks involved. It’s a challenge and that’s why we will be running the trials in Gothenburg to run in real traffic situations.

“Another challenge is how the change-over will work because once you’re into a conference call, how fast can you be reactivated as a driver? It’s very critical and definitely has to be a lot faster than, say, two minutes or something. Yet it can’t be two seconds or so because then it’s then just pilot-assist.”

Responsibility for technology

Carmakers must also accept full liability for the technology if they want to win the trust of consumers and legislators alike. Samuelsson said: “It has to be a very clear situation and that’s why we want to avoid Level 3. It’s either a normal car that you drive as usual or you are driven by the car then liability will have to be on the carmaker. You can’t have an autonomous car that relies on the driver as a kind of back-up. That’s too dangerous.”

He also is confident that carmakers will not be encroaching on the auto insurance companies’ business by self-insuring their products. He explained: “I don’t see carmakers becoming insurers. It will be exactly as today where you have redress back to the car manufacturer. If there is a malfunction with the radars or sensors then you will, for sure, hear from the insurer and I think that is correct because if you are not ready to take responsibility for this technology then you shouldn’t be in the game.

“This technology should be more reliable than the human and this is the step forward in safety – today something like 90% of all accidents are the human related. Of course, the Zero Vision we have relies a lot on this technology. Technology like auto braking, blind spots, lane control are all components building up to the autonomous drive.”

Samuelsson sees the early-bird carmaker in the autonomous market will reap the biggest rewards. “Being first out to market will be a differentiator and after that, really safety credibility because people will think twice before really sitting back to watch a movie. Imagine if you are driven by someone you don’t know very well, you tend to try to brake when you’re on the passenger’s side.

“The decision making software is really our core competence – how should you react, should you brake, should you steer?”

Yet, that decision making will not involve the car having to make any ethical decisions over whether to accept a collision over swerving to avoid and potentially car collateral damage and injury to third-parties.

Samuelsson said: “You will never have those decisions made. You will have a car that, when something is in its way, will do everything to brake. If there is an empty space to the right it will steer to the right but it will never steer to the right is there is also something there. Then it will just brake just like a person driving. It will never make moral decisions and will concentrate on stopping the vehicle.”

He doesn’t see the price tag of a fully autonomous capable car being too prohibitive for business car users. “This [price] is speculation but I think it will have a very high value because you have a mobile office and can do video conferencing and hold meeting and that would be very valuable for a company car.”

When asked would it be double the cost of a non-autopilot car Samuelsson said: “For a very cheap car that could be a formula but for a premium car it would be a lot less than that to really have it competitive.”


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