Volvo wants to put 100 fully autonomous vehicles into the hands of customers for use on select public roads in the Swedish city of Gothenburg within the next two years. The public pilot is part of a “one-of-a-kind collaboration between legislators, transport authorities, a major city and a vehicle manufacturer” according to a recent press release.

Using an array of sensors, cloud-based positioning systems, and intelligent braking and steering technologies, Volvo believes it has created a production-viable, fully autonomous driving system ready for consumer use. It’s called Drive Me.

Volvo says the main challenge was designing a system that could account for a diverse number of traffic scenarios and the potential for technical faults. At the outset, the fully autonomous driving function will only be used in “suitable conditions," which include a lack of oncoming traffic, cyclists, and pedestrians.

“Making this complex system 99 percent reliable is not good enough. You need to get much closer to 100 percent before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” says Dr. Erik Coelingh, Technical Specialist at Volvo Cars. “Here, we have a similar approach to that of the aircraft industry.”

Volvo cites benefits that include decreased environmental impact, greater safety, and additional free time.

The Drive Me system uses an enormous array of technology. These include radar, cameras, lasers, GPS, ultrasonic sensors, high-definition 3D digital maps, and cloud-based services that connect to the traffic authority’s central control hub.

Click past the jump to read more about Volvo’s Drive Me - Self-driving Cars.

Why it matters

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: like it or not, the robot cars are coming. The potential benefits are simply too far-reaching. Several manufacturers are currently racing to get a system to market – Mercedes and Audi have both been particularly visible when it comes to sharing recent developments. However, Dr. Coelingh is right in saying that the real test will take place on public roads with normal folks, rather than engineers, at the wheel (or rather, simply behind the wheel): “It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle, but if you want to create an impact in the real world, you have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers.”

If Volvo, a company known for creating reliable, safe vehicles with a dash of quirkiness, is the first to bring autonomous vehicles to the public in a big way, it would be a watershed moment for the auto industry. The possible consequences of this technology, both positive and negative, will touch anyone and everyone who uses a car. If Volvo’s system works — that is, if it can handle the rigors of everyday driving, with its unpredictability, varying road conditions, and most of all, all those ignorant and awful human drivers, then we may be looking at an AI chauffeur sooner rather than later.

I, for one, hope the pilot turns out to be a major success. I love a good drive as much as the next car geek, but if the adoption of autonomous vehicles means less pollution, less congestion, more free time, and greater road safety, than I’m all for it.

One note, though: I won’t be giving up my manual WRX. I’ll have to be blind and paralyzed before I relinquish the ability to row my own gears and open the taps.

Press Release

Volvo Cars presents a unique, complete system solution that makes it possible to integrate self-driving cars into real traffic – with ordinary people in the driver’s seat.

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“We are entering uncharted territory in the field of autonomous driving,” says Dr Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President Research and Development of Volvo Car Group. “Taking the exciting step to a public pilot, with the ambition to enable ordinary people to sit behind the wheel in normal traffic on public roads, has never been done before.”

As the Drive Me project enters its second year, Volvo Cars is moving rapidly towards the aim of placing 100 self-driving cars in the hands of customers on selected roads around Gothenburg by 2017. The public pilot, one-of-a-kind collaboration between legislators, transport authorities, a major city and a vehicle manufacturer, is a central component of Volvo Cars’ plan to achieve sustainable mobility and ensure a crash-free future.

From lost time to quality time

Based on an extensive analysis of potential technical faults, Volvo Cars has designed a complete production-viable autonomous driving system. The key to making this unprecedented leap is a complex network of sensors, cloud-based positioning systems and intelligent braking and steering technologies.

“Autonomous driving will fundamentally change the way we look at driving. In the future, you will be able to choose between autonomous and active driving,” says Dr Mertens. “This transforms everyday commuting from lost time to quality time, opening up new opportunities for work and pleasure.”

Moving beyond demonstrators

Volvo Cars’ Autopilot system is designed to be reliable enough to allow the car to take over every aspect of driving in autonomous mode. The technology advances a crucial step beyond the automotive systems demonstrated so far since it includes fault-tolerant systems.

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“It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle, but if you want to create an impact in the real world, you have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers,” says Dr Erik Coelingh, Technical Specialist at Volvo Cars.

The main challenge is to design an Autopilot that is robust for traffic scenarios as well as for technical faults that may occur. It cannot be expected that the driver is ready to suddenly intervene in a critical situation. Initially, the cars will drive autonomously on selected roads with suitable conditions, for example without oncoming traffic, cyclists and pedestrians.

Back-up systems

“Making this complex system 99 per cent reliable is not good enough. You need to get much closer to 100 per cent before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” says Erik Coelingh. “Here, we have a similar approach to that of the aircraft industry. Our fail-operational architecture includes backup systems that will ensure that Autopilot will continue to function safely also if an element of the system were to become disabled.”

For example, the probability of a brake system failure is very small, but a self-driving vehicle needs a second independent system to brake the vehicle to a stop, as it is unlikely that the driver will be prepared to press the brake pedal.

Handles complicated scenarios

On the road, the complete technology solution shall handle even the most complicated scenarios, from smooth commuting to heavy traffic and emergency situations.

“Just as good drivers would, potentially critical situations are approached with sensible caution. In a real emergency, however, the car reacts faster than most humans,” says Erik Coelingh.

When autonomous driving is no longer available – due to exceptional weather conditions, technical malfunction or the end of the route has been reached – the driver is prompted by the system to take over again.

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If the driver is incapacitated for any reason and does not take over in time, the car will bring itself to a safe place to stop.

Consumer and societal benefits

In addition to simplifying people’s lives and transforming the everyday commute from lost time to quality time, self-driving cars create environmental benefits.

Volvo Cars expects that autonomous driving could cut fuel consumption. The technology could also improve traffic flow as well as open up possibilities for urban planning and more cost-efficient investments in infrastructure.

“Developing a complete technological solution for self-driving cars is a major step. Once the public pilot is up and running, it will provide us with valuable knowledge about implementing self-driving cars in the traffic environment, and help us explore how they can contribute to sustainable mobility. Our smart vehicles are a key part of the solution, but a broad societal approach is vital to offer sustainable personal mobility in the future. This unique cross-functional co-operation is the key to a successful implementation of self-driving vehicles,” says Erik Coelingh.

A selection of Drive Me system solution components:

Sensor technologies
Volvo Cars is developing a holistic solution that generates exact positioning and a complete 360° view of the car’s surroundings. This is achieved by a combination of multiple radars, cameras and laser sensors. A redundant network of computers processes the information, generating a real-time map of moving and stationary objects in the environment.

Precise positioning is based on this surround information together with GPS and a high definition 3D digital map that is continuously updated with real-time data. The system is reliable enough to work without requiring driver supervision.

Combined radar and camera
The combined 76 GHz frequency-modulated continuous wave radar and camera placed in the windscreen is the same as that in the all-new XC90. This system reads traffic signs and the road’s curvature and can detect objects on the road such as other road users.

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Surround radars
Four radars behind the front and rear bumpers (one on each corner of the car) are able to locate objects in all directions. By sweeping both left and right, transmitting waves that bounce off signs, poles, and tunnels, they monitor a full 360° around the car.

360° surround vision
Four cameras monitor objects in close proximity to the vehicle. Two are under the outer rear-view mirrors, one is in the rear bumper and one is in the grille. Besides detecting objects at close range, these cameras monitor lane markings.

The cameras have a high dynamic range and can handle very quick changes in lightning conditions, e.g. when entering a tunnel.

Multiple beam laser scanner
This sensor system is placed in the front of the vehicle, below the air intake. The scanner can identify objects in front of the car and ensures very high angle resolution. It can also distinguish between objects. The unique laser sensor has a range of 150 metres for vehicles and covers a 140° field of view.

Trifocal camera
In addition, a trifocal camera placed behind the upper part of the windscreen is three cameras in one, providing a broad 140° view, a 45° view and a long-range, yet narrow, 34° view for improved depth perception and distant-object detection. The camera can spot suddenly appearing pedestrians and other unexpected road hazards.

Long-range radars
Two long-range radars placed in the rear bumper of the car ensure a good rearward field of view. This technology is particularly useful when changing lanes because it can detect fast-moving vehicles approaching from far behind.

Ultrasonic sensors
Twelve ultrasonic sensors around the car are used to identify objects close to the vehicle and support autonomous drive at low speeds.

The sensors are based on the technology used for current park assist functions enhanced with advanced signal processing.
A typical example of when this technology is useful is for detecting unexpected situations, such as pedestrians or hazards on the road close to the car.

High definition 3D digital map
A high definition 3D digital map is the tool used to provide the vehicle with information about the surroundings, e.g. altitude, road curvature, number of lanes, geometry of tunnels, guard rails, signs, exits, etc. The position geometry is in many cases at centimetre level.

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High performance positioning
The high performance GPS is one part of the positioning control that is enhanced by a combination of an advanced GPS, a 3-degrees of freedom accelerometer and a 3-degrees of freedom gyro. By matching the 360 image created by the multitude of sensors with the map image, the car will get the information about its position in relation to the surroundings.

By combining the information from the sensors and the map, the Drive Me car is able to choose the best course in real time, factoring in variables such as the curvature of the road, speed limit, temporary signs and other traffic.

Cloud services
The cloud service is connected to the traffic authorities’ control centre. This ensures that the most up-to-date traffic information is always available. The control centre operators also have the ability to tell the drivers to turn off the autonomous drive mode if necessary.

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