GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Volvo says it is ready to take its ongoing test of self-driving cars to a new level that will enable the vehicle to do all of the work required to operate safely in highway traffic with ordinary people — not Volvo test drivers — behind the wheel.
The safety-obsessed carmaker began testing self-driving technologies on the streets in and around its hometown of Gothenburg in southwest Sweden last summer. But those first cars have been limited to tasks such as lane-keeping and following, adaptive speed and merging into traffic.
Volvo's aim in the next phase of its "Drive Me" test program, set to launch in 2017, is to have 100 cars capable of handling almost all the driving — although still with a human driver behind the wheel ready to take control when necessary — on 30 miles of public road.
The company now says it has completed development of the various hardware and software technologies necessary to do so. It still needs to work on shrinking the onboard computers that help control things.
Volvo executives said they would spend much of the next two years further perfecting and miniaturizing the self-driving system components, working with Swedish authorities on rules for automated vehicles and selecting 100 Gothenburg-area residents to use the specially equipped Volvo XC90 SUVs.
The program was outlined in a nearly two-hour online press conference Thursday with half a dozen of Volvo's top autonomous driving specialists explaining what the next generation of Drive Me cars will be able to do, and what it will take to enable them to do so.
The company stresses that the vehicles — which could be ready for the consumer market as early as 2020 if the necessary traffic and liability rules and regulations are in place — are not fully autonomous.
Despite the low-speed Google autonomous vehicle, the highway legal driverless car with no steering wheel or other controls is still a thing of science fiction films.
"We first have to prove that self-driving cars can be made sufficiently safe for ordinary customers on a limited amount of roads under limited conditions. Our ambition is to achieve that in 2017," says Peter Mertens, Volvo's senior vice president for research and development.
"After that a huge amount of work remains" before self-driving technology is available for all, adds Mertens, complaining that "this is sometimes neglected in public discussion" of autonomous cars.
The Drive Me test cars will be able to operate in a fully automated mode, but will require "multiple inputs from the driver during a certain period of time," or they will shut down the automated features, requiring the driver to take full control, says Jonas Nilsson, a technical specialist with Volvo's autonomous drive team.
The cars will be able to brake, accelerate, steer, follow safely, change lanes, avoid obstacles in the road, read and understand lane markers and traffic signs and signals, and even pull to the side of the road if systems fail or the driver becomes inattentive or incapacitated.
While a fully loaded Volvo XC90 today uses three radar units and four cameras to operate various active safety systems, the vehicles in the Drive Me test will be equipped with seven radar units, seven cameras, a dozen ultrasound sensors, a laser scanner, a GPS system and a wireless connection to enable it to communicate with a Volvo-maintained traffic control center.
There also will be a "black box" — much like those used on aircraft to record in-cockpit activities as well as operating data. Volvo will be able to use data collected from the test cars to further develop its technologies. The company says that when automated vehicles are actually sold to the public, their onboard data recorders would be the vehicle owner's property and be accessible by insurance companies and legal authorities only via a court order.
The vehicles also have backup systems, including a separate 12-volt electrical system — to ensure that critical functions such as steering and braking don't fail. They are programmed to pull to the side of the road and stop it if problems develop or if the driver stops providing the required human input.
Surprisingly, Volvo executives say they do not expect the mass of equipment and software needed for automated driving systems to add much to the cost of the cars. Most of the hardware already exists and is produced in volumes that make it relatively inexpensive, they said.
"We do not foresee the price to be higher than for today's driver support [and] active safety system packages," says Karl-Johan Runnberg, Volvo's director of government affairs.
Volvo's test will take place from 2017 through 2019 and involve 100 XC90s. Only about 30 miles of roads in and around Gothenburg have been cleared for use with the cars in automated mode — signals sent between the vehicles and the control center will switch the autonomous systems on and off as road and weather conditions dictate.
Volvo will only allow the cars to operate in autonomous mode on divided highways with no cross traffic.
The degree of autonomy is what specialists in the field call "Level 3" of the four stages of automated driving. Level 4 is full autonomy, with cars able to drive themselves in all traffic conditions on all types of roads with no driver input needed.
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