Starting in 2017, Volvo is going to be testing a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles on the roads of its hometown, Gothenburg, Sweden. And by "testing," Volvo means it's conducting an experiment by building a slew of self driving cars and giving them to the public to try out. In other words, Volvo's system is vastly further along the pipeline than anyone has given it credit for.
It's time to take a closer look at exactly how it works.
A little background here is crucial. Volvo has long been obsessed with safety. And it even has an express goal of producing a car by 2020 in which no occupant will be killed in a collision.
Clearly, since so many people drive like the woman in the above photo (Is that a freaking laptop lady? Jesus!), with our without autonomous technology, Volvo's thinking that taking the human element out of the daily driving equation is the best way to hit its goal. So how does the Volvo system work?
Well, there are a lot of sensors doing a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. More on that in a second, but the crucial point here is that Volvo's engineers are approaching the system much like aircraft engineers. When one system fails, there's at least one other redundant system to back it up, so that only the most catastrophic of events will result in failure.
"Making this complex system 99 percent reliable is not good enough."—Dr. Erik Coelingh, Volvo Technical Specialist
There's an entire series of cameras that work with both radar and laser systems to precisely map out everything on the road, from lane markers (handled by the cameras in the side mirrors) to traffic hazards. Think of it like Predator Vision, but for your car.
This funky looking thing above just so happens to be one of those cameras.
It not only distinguishes between different cars, it can visually triangulate objects' relative positioning using this fancy trifocal camera, which simultaneously views the world in swaths of 140, 45, and 34 degrees.
This is in addition to a joint camera/radar unit that the company just rolled out on the XC90. A unit that reads not only traffic signs, but the curvature of the road.
While current blind spot monitoring systems tend to struggle with things like lane-splitting motorcycles, Volvo's new system adds a pair of long-range radars help detect fast-closing objects at a much greater range. Meaning—in theory— if you're closing quickly on a bike, the system won't cut you off.
Next up are a bunch of ultrasonic sensors (boring looking little knobs, pictured above) that're kinda similar to the parking sensors you've probably got on your car right now. They serve two distinct purposes here: low-speed driving (i.e. self-parking) and last-second emergencies, like some kid kicking a soccer ball out from behind a parked car.
Now, combine all of these sensors and you have a pretty accurate 3D map of a road. That map is then lined up with a 3D digital map synced to the navigation system, and the result is the ability to locate the vehicle to within one centimeter.
That map is then compared with GPS data, a suite of accelerometers, and data from other cars that's been sent to the cloud. All of a sudden the car knows when there are temporary lane closures, traffic jams to avoid, or even slick spots on the road.
Most of which the average driver won't even notice, since there are plenty of other distractions with which to occupy time. Like looking at magazines filled with massive fonts. Remember that lady with the laptop?
For those fearing an autonomous vehicle apocalypse, there is also some refreshing news from Volvo: the intent is to be able to switch the system off entirely, so you can still enjoy the time-tested pleasure of driving. You just don't have to.