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.