Volvo dials down the hype on automated driving trial

  • January 5, 2018

Volvo Cars has reduced the scale of its Drive Me automated driving trial and delayed the roll-out of fully-automated driving features to real-world users.

The project, which has the support of the city of Gothenburg and the Swedish Government, was first announced in 2013 with the aim of testing 100 self-driving vehicles from 2017 with members of the public in the driving seat in every-day conditions on specially-chosen roads.

But the revised plan signals a more cautious approach.   The company announced in December that 100 people would be involved over the next four years (rather than 100 vehicles) and, initially, they would be testing driver assistance features already commercially available such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping functionality.  So far, only two families are involved in the trial, with another three expected to join the project this year.

The families will eventually be given access to more advanced features but this will be in controlled environments such as a test track and under supervision from Volvo engineers.

The changes highlight something of a reality-check after several years of hype over the speed at which self-driving vehicles will be ready for use on public roads.  ETSC has urged a step-by-step approach whereby self-driving features are independently tested and approved for use only in specific scenarios (such as motorway driving).

A number of recent cases have shown that customers deliberately ignore or misunderstand warnings over the capabilities of some driver-assistance technologies, which currently all require the driver to give their full attention to the road at all times.  Tesla’s Autopilot feature has been criticised by the US National Transport Safety Board for failing to prevent the driver from activating the system in unsuitable circumstances such as on an undivided road.   The German transport minister has also called for the name of the system to be changed.

Volvo calls its adaptive cruise control and lane keeping system ‘Pilot Assist’ reflecting its limited abilities.

Volvo’s change of tone is in stark contrast to General Motors who announced that it would start producing self-driving cars without steering wheels and pedals by next year. The vehicles are expected to be used initially as taxis in cities.  A number of US companies including GM are currently testing self-driving vehicles in cities that include Phoenix and San Francisco but, so far, all have a human driver in the vehicle at all times.

GM’s plan may hit a regulatory road block, as a car without a steering wheel or pedals would not currently meet federal vehicle safety standards. The company could apply for an exemption for a small number of vehicles but is hoping instead to get approval for meeting the standards “in a way that’s different from what’s exactly prescribed”.  A legal proposal to increase the maximum limit on the number of vehicles exempted from federal rules from 2,500 a year to 100,000 is currently blocked in the U.S. Congress.