The news that Volvo Cars, renowned for its safety focus, and ride-sharing company Uber, are working together to develop next generation autonomous driving (AD) cars eventually reaching full SAE Level-5 standard (no steering wheel or controls), may bring comfort to those who are scared, skeptical or just scorn the advent of being driven by such radical robotics.
But this latest development sees a further step to AD being taken in parallel with Volvo’s avowed intent that no one traveling in its new models from 2020 onwards will be killed or seriously injured. That bold statement was first uttered in 2007, presaging the introduction or development of a plethora of safety features that the automaker believes will enable it to achieve its target.
Volvo is also confident that AD will take out the human factor as the major cause of auto accidents. It promises to project driving safety into a once unbelievable new dimension.
Backing Volvo’s confidence is a massive database of accident analyses stretching back to 1970. It concerns 42,000 accidents, from minor to fatal, involving 72,000 vehicle occupants. This information forms a matrix to assess its aims for the 2020 target, says Anders Eugensson, Director Governmental Affairs at Volvo Car Group.
As the 2020s unfold, by then more than 60 years after Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin innovated the 3-point seat belt, not only is AD likely to become commonplace “sometime in the future,” but restraints and airbags may no longer be needed, believes Eugensson.
SAE Level 5 "a big step"
“We are working now on SAE Level-4 of autonomous driving technology,” he told Automotive Engineering. Reaching Level-5 will be a big step and one which will take a lot of investment, he explained, but will bring huge benefits to society in general, not just via traffic management but also in regard to health-care economics as safety levels soar.
The Volvo-Uber link will see both companies using the same base vehicle type for the next stage of their own autonomous strategies in what is expected to be a long-term industrial partnership.
The new base vehicle will be created off Volvo’s modular Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) used by the current XC90, S90 and V90 models. The SPA’s scalability will allow required safety, redundancy and other features central to AD operation.
Uber Chief Executive, Travis Kalanick, states: “Over one million people die in car accidents every year. These are tragedies that self-driving technology can help solve but we can’t do this alone.” Hence the link-up with Volvo that will enable both companies to meet anticipated schedules for full AD introduction internationally.
That schedule will vary depending on differing legislation in individual countries, a fact that adds to the investment needed just to demonstrate the potential capability of fully autonomous systems. The cost includes running large fleets of autonomous-capable test vehicles in major European cities, which Volvo is now undertaking.
Underlining Kalanick’s words, Eugensson states that 90-95% of accidents are due to human error. So does that mean that fully autonomous vehicles will see accidents reducing by a similar figure?
“Almost. The car can make every decision and will not get tired or distracted," he said. "But there would still be an interaction with some ‘normal’ road users.” This means pedestrians and cyclists, and there remain some specific challenges regarding other vehicles (conventional and AD), particularly at intersections, with such dangers as other cars running a red light.
While he admits that the accident rate may not go down by 95%, in a year or two Volvo's systems will have more intelligence to deal with this, he believes. "Also, if an autonomous car enters an area where there are a lot of pedestrians we have to be very cautious and drive very slowly.”
First step coming 2017
Most of the technology that will be used for autonomous driving will be an extrapolation of systems already used on Volvo cars. These include radar, stereo cameras, ultrasonics, satellite navigation – and anything and everything that allows the car to be aware of what surrounds, it or approaching, from any direction — even above, such as a low bridge or entry into a parking lot.
Eugensson is so confident of the efficacy of future Volvo technology that he adds: “Maybe the future car will be a mobile living room, too. It could be used as a way of socializing with other occupants because if we produce cars so there are no crashes you, as the ‘driver’ would be able to turn around and maybe even have a meal on the move! In fact, there would not be a driver as such."
No one would need to be in what now would be the driving seat; the vehicle would be totally autonomous, he projected, offering a 30-years-from-now forecast.
It is a seemingly remarkable statement from a senior executive of an established OEM but it underlines the level of technology advances that are now within reach.
Although Volvo would retain its safety USP, all other autonomous vehicles would also need to conform to very high legislated standards, which would in theory, create a level safety technology playing field. Therefore Volvo has to modify its USP. It is already doing that, planning to lift its quality and image into the premium class, combining safety with high levels of comfort and capability.
“But it is not just about putting technology into a car; we have to assure our customers that we have done everything absolutely thoroughly,” says Eugensson.
Complementing Volvo’s large car SPA is its Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) for smaller cars that must also meet Volvo’s safety criteria for 2020 and its AD plans. Helena Bergström Pilo, Vice President of Vehicle Line 40 (smaller series cars), says: “SPA and CMA are related but are of different sizes. The first car using the CMA will appear at the end of 2017. We are not releasing details yet but we have shown two concepts, the 40.1 and 40.2 which show the architecture’s capability.”
The CMA can take a range of powertrains including pure electric, which broadens the design and engineering challenges of meeting Volvo’s ultimate safety aim, while keeping mass and cost down, comfort and quality up, in a fiercely competitive segment.
But the common challenge across all model ranges is AD, noted Pilo: “It is to expand that technology and to the level where it can really be called fully autonomous in all traffic situations. That is the challenge that faces Volvo — and the automotive industry in general.”