Volvo wants to integrate self-driving cars into real traffic with ordinary people, as opposed to professional drivers, behind the wheel.
This week they described in some detail what they call the Drive Me project.
Their plan is to put 100 self-driving cars in the hands of customers on selected roads around Gothenburg, Sweden by 2017, which is practically the day after tomorrow in automotive terms.
To make that work they need, and have designed, a production-viable autonomous driving system that encompasses a complex network of sensors, cloud-based positioning systems and intelligent braking and steering technologies.
“Autonomous driving will fundamentally change the way we look at driving,” said Dr. Peter Mertens, Volvo Car Group’s Senior VP of R&D. “In the future, you will be able to choose between autonomous and active driving.”
A Volvo Autopilot system is designed to be reliable enough to allow the car to take over every aspect of driving in autonomous mode. It includes fault-tolerant technology.
It’s Easy to Build a Self-Driving Concept Vehicle, But…
“It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle, but if you want to create an impact in the real world, you have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers,” said Dr Erik Coelingh, a Volvo Technical Specialist.
The challenge is to design an Autopilot system robust enough for traffic scenarios and whatever technical faults might occur – without requiring the driver to be ready to assume control at any moment. At first, the cars will drive autonomously on selected roads with suitable conditions, so no heavy traffic, cyclists or pedestrians.
99 Percent Reliable Is Not Good Enough
“Making this complex system 99 percent reliable is not good enough. You need to get much closer to 100 per cent before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” Coelingh explained. “We have a similar approach to that of the aircraft industry. Our fail-operational architecture includes backup systems that will ensure that Autopilot will continue to function safely also if an element of the system were to become disabled.” He cited a second independent brake system as one example.
“When autonomous driving is no longer available – due to exceptional weather conditions, technical malfunction or the end of the route has been reached – the driver is prompted by the system to take over again,” Coelingh said, adding that if the driver is incapacitated for any reason, and does not take over in time, the car will bring itself to a safe place to stop.
There are significant potential benefits to autonomous driving, and now the technology is not all that far from reality.