The thought of driverless cars being out on the roads used to be something fiction films were made out of.
Like the cult 1990 movie Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. In one scene, ‘Arnie’ jumps into a driverless taxi, which is part of a fleet of vehicles that is ferrying passengers around an unnamed city. The sci-fi blockbuster is set in 2084 and sees vehicles manage to use futuristic technology to securely help pedestrians and traffic to navigate their way around a metropolis. But perhaps science fiction is now becoming reality and has sped up the process as the world’s first fleet of self-driving city cars is almost here and 70 years ahead of schedule thanks to Swedish motor giant Volvo.
The car manufacturer is ready to unveil one-hundred of the vehicles on Gothenburg’s public roads over a two-year project. The idea is called ‘Drive Me’ and is a joint initiative between the manufacturer and numerous locally based agencies. The scheme is backed by Sweden’s government and is intended to highlight the benefits to people of being able to get about without having to concentrate on driving. Sweden has often been a pioneering country for adventure and this will help to position itself as leading the way in driverless cars. Currently, there are five Volvo prototypes that have been launched as the technology is developed and worked on ahead of the planned January 2017 launch. However, the trial vehicles are not strictly “driverless” as someone will always be sat in the driver’s seat, just without the need for them to touch the steering wheel, pedals or gearstick.
This will be the same principle for the one-hundred vehicles, which are to be leased to local people for the entirety of the pilot scheme. The vehicles will drive themselves using a range of advanced technological tools and smart computer programming that frees up the occupant to do other things. This could include anything from checking emails, watching news on a smartphone or reading a book.
“Our next feature: spare time”. – Volvo’s self-driving promotional video.
When the initiative rolls out, it will see the self-driving vehicles using around 31 miles or 50 kilometers of specifically selected roads and highways in Gothenburg, which will also include three tunnels. These selected roads are favourites with commuters and often become sections where frequent rush-hour queues occur. On all other roads in the city, drivers will be in control of their cars in the usual way.
One of the experts behind ‘Drive Me’ is technical specialist Erik Coelingh, who said of the proposed scheme “Our aim is for the car to be able to handle all possible traffic scenarios by itself, including leaving the traffic flow and finding a safe place if the driver for any reason is unable to regain control.”
In some of the tests runs, prototypes have been used including a Volvo S60 saloon. In one such trial, a company engineer from Volvo was the only person given permission to sit behind the wheel. The vehicle navigated to the E6, which is the main Sweden to Norway coastal road and runs straight through Gothenburg, a highway that has been approved for the project. Once the vehicle got on to the road and was faced with busy traffic travelling over 40 miles-an-hour or at the local 70kph speed limit, the test driver was able to simply push a button on the steering wheel, before pulling their feet off the pedals and removing their hands from the steering wheel. The car was then able to rely on the technology to guide its journey. These tools included a combination of cameras, laser and radar, different sensors around the car, GPS over map data, a cloud connection and a link to a local traffic control centre. This is still a project in development and some cars have had a tendency to make small movements from one side of a lane to the other. The vehicle can also not yet negotiate overtaking, lane-changes and merging traffic manoeuvres. However, Volvo has confidently assured everyone that these issues will be resolved.
The potential benefits for motorist are far greater than simply enabling people to spend more time relaxing, reading or surfing the internet as they make their daily commute to work. But by removing the human element from driving, including human-error, the computer-controlled cars might just be able to travel closer together, more safely and make better use of the road space, which could improve traffic flow. Keeping a human element will almost definitely be needed to clear the schemes biggest hurdle. The 1968 Vienna Convention on road traffic clearly stated that a motorist must always be in control of a car while it is moving. What that actually means in reality splits opinion. Volvo’s manager of innovations, Jonas Ekmark said, “The Swedish interpretation is that as long as the driver has the ability to take over responsibility at any time, then it is fine. In Germany it’s far stricter. There is a debate to be had and we are lobbying for that.”
Insurance and liability rules will also need to be agreed, as the first accident involving a self-driving car and a pedestrian will make headlines right across the world. Volvo has a goal for autonomous driving technology to appear in its production cars before the end of the decade. The ‘Drive Me’ concept is a forward step towards the Swedish company’s “Vision 2020” and their desire to build cars that can’t physically crash within six years.
Jonas Ekmark insisted that real-world feedback from the one-hundred users will be a vital requirement and will shape future policy. He said, “Will customers like it? We believe they will think it’s fantastic but we don’t know that. There’s no shortage of people eager to join the pilot scheme, to be involved in something genuinely ground-breaking.”