A fleet of 100 autonomous cars will hit Gothenburg streets in 2017
Volvo will start the world's first large-scale autonomous car test on roads around Gothenburg within three years.
The Swedish car-maker today confirmed details on a fleet of 100 self-driving Volvo S60 and V60 models that will begin long-term testing on an open loop of the city's road network at the beginning of 2017.
The test will be the first of its kind in the world, putting self-driving cars into the hands of ordinary drivers and allowing them to run autonomously in day-to-day traffic in large numbers. It will last two years, and aims to develop autonomous technology for inclusion in Volvo's road cars by the end of the decade.
The technology will form a key part of the company's 'Vision 2020' strategy, as part of which Volvo plans to completely rule out accidental deaths and serious injuries to those travelling in new Volvos bought after that year.
The autonomous cars will navigate a test network of some 32 miles of Gothenburg's motorway and ring road network, including several multi-lane intersections but no traffic light-governed intersections or inner city roads.
The cars will be able to reproduce good lane-keeping, select appropriate speeds, maintain safe distances to other traffic, merge safely into traffic and react to developing hazards.
On trial as part of a joint project between Volvo and the Swedish transport authorities, they will feature self-contained autonomous systems including lane-keeping sensors, both radar and laser transceivers, and cameras to scan the road ahead and behind.
The project, dubbed DriveMe, was announced late last year, when Volvo's technical specialist Erik Coelingh announced the scheme's aim was to make cars "able to handle all possible traffic scenarios by themselves, including leaving the traffic flow and finding a safe ‘harbour’ if the driver, for any reason, is unable to regain control."
While Volvo's long-term plan is to enable fully unsupervised autonomous driving, it - like all global car-makers - must wait for development of global driving legislation, and of supporting insurance and policing framework, before the market is ready for it.
"As things stand, the Vienna Convention says that a driver must always be in control of his vehicle, and responsible for what happens to it," explained Volvo's Innovations Manager Jonas Ekmark. "In Sweden, the interpretation of that convention is flexible enough to allow us to carry out this kind of pilot scheme. But in Germany, the interpretation is much more strict."
Volvo is not the only company moving forwards with autonomous car technology, however. Internet giant Google has set a target of 2018 for launching its own self-driving car, with prototype models having been testing in the US since 2011. A fleet of around 10 cars have previously been testing on freeways and in less built-up areas in the US.
Google's project has since shifted to urban environments, with the cars learning to tackle city streets. “A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area... a self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t - and it never gets tired or distracted,” said project director Chris Urmson.
Developments to the Google car's software mean the model can now detect hundreds of individual objects such as cyclists, pedestrians and other vehicles. Updates also enable the car to predict likely and unlikely scenarios, such as whether another car will drive through or stop for a red light.
Elsewhere, Mercedes-Benz recently recreated a 60-mile journey taken by founder Carl Benz's wife Bertha in 1888 using the original Benz Patent Motor Car. The re-enactment was done by an autonomous S-class featuring production-based radar detection systems.
Mercedes' autonomous systems are, according to a spokesman, “very close to production”, and it's simply a case of refining the technology for road use and making it available for the right price.
Audi is also working on autonomous technology and demonstrated its latest developments at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. The firm's prototype is fitted with a system that enables it to find its own parking space via a smartphone app, and a program that allows the car to pilot itself through traffic using the built-in cameras and lane departure sensors.
Earlier this year, BMW released video footage of an M235i capable of drifting itself. Using advanced GPS, the car could operate the steering, accelerator and brakes and complete drifts without any help from the driver.
Elsewhere, Nissan boss Andy Palmer said he wants a “production ready” self-driving Nissan prepared for production by 2020 - although in certain circumstances, such as congested cities, it would still require driver input.
While there are still at least six years to wait before the first autonomous cars are production-ready, Google believes the technology is crucial to managing congested roads in the future.
Urmson believes that "we all dream of a world in which city centres are freed of congestion from cars circling for parking and have fewer intersections made dangerous by distracted drivers... thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously."
Mike Vousden / Matt Saunders