Gizmag takes a ride in Volvo's most autonomous car yet
July 4, 2013
Gizmag took a trip to Gothenburg to see six pieces of autonomous driving technology demonstrated by Volvo on Tuesday. A self-parking car and a car that drives itself (albeit under certain conditions) were among the tech on display, rounded out by new detection systems for animals, pedestrians at night, road edges and barriers, as well as a behind-the-scenes car-to-car communication system. All are positioned as pieces of safety technology, Volvo's goal being that no one will die or be seriously injured in a new Volvo come 2020. But it's also clear that Volvo is deadly serious about full autonomy, and given that some of the tech Gizmag saw will be on the market next year, a driverless future feels closer today than it did when the week began. But it's a future that will take some getting used to …
Talking to Gizmag on Monday, Toscan Bennett Volvo Vice President of Product Planning & Management explained that, according to WHO figures, 1.3 million people are killed and 50 million injured every year on the world's roads. Were driving fatalities a disease, they would be an epidemic comparable to malaria or tuberculosis. But where improving vehicle safety once concentrated on the roll cage and the crumple zone – necessary if not sexy technology – the focus now is on eliminating driver error. "Autonomous driving is the end game," Bennett said at the Stora Holm traffic training center the following day, pointing out that humans are responsible, in whole or in part, for 90 percent of road accidents today. And yet in many of the technologies shown on Tuesday, the driver retains overall control. Whether or not you see that as a good thing will depend on your technological and anthropological world views.
Claimed to be one of four world first technologies on show on Tuesday, Volvo's autonomous parking was, in one sense, the exceptional technology of the day in that its focus is on convenience more than safety. Though self-parking tech could conceivably reduce the occurrence of minor prangs, the real draw here is the ability to have your motor drop you off at a designated spot before parking itself, and coming to pick you up again when summoned via smartphone app.
Like all the technology on show on Tuesday, autonomous parking will make use of what will become a standard set of sensors in Volvos from next year. The ultrasound and laser-based collision detection systems present in Volvo's City Safety system (and similar technologies from other makers) will be complemented by both an improved camera vision systems and radar, all wired up to a computer. In production models, that computer will be roughly the size of a cigarette packet, though the prototypes on show on Tuesday were typically packing a trunk-load of electronics. The car's pedals, gears, steering and brakes have all been adapted for automation.
There's more work to be done, however. The prototype's cameras, radars and collision sensors performed admirably, with the car neatly reversing into a space between two parked cars, and stopping safely when confronted with other moving vehicles and pedestrians (well, manikins on skateboards). But Volvo's prototype was preloaded with GPS data to identify the position of the parking spaces and pick-up points themselves, a luxury that won't be afforded in the wild. This suggests that there is more work to be done with the visual recognition system, as Volvo is adamant that autonomous parking will need to work with minimal effort on the part of car parks. It realizes that true autonomous parking needs to work with paint markings and signposts, not transmitters or magnetic infrastructure.
Autonomous parking raises one other very interesting question. Gizmag saw the vehicle stop to wait for another vehicle to move out of its way, but that vehicle was driven by a Volvo engineer, effectively following a script for the purposes of the demo. It's perhaps not too much of a stretch to solve the problem of two driverless Volvos avoiding each other with a bit of car-to-car communication and a dab of algorithmic wizardry, but in a multistory car park full of self-parking vehicles from any number of manufacturers standard methods and open communication protocols begin to sound absolutely essential rather than merely desirable (lest stop-start Mexican standoffs ensue).
It's no surprise, then, that Volvo's autonomous parking system is not among the technologies that will hit the market in 2014, though company engineers estimate that commercially-available Volvos could be parking themselves within the next 10 years. Caveats aside, watching an empty car park itself over and over again, avoiding obstacles along the way, was not only impressive, it was downright uncanny.
Adaptive Cruise Control with Steer Assist
Google are not the only ones with self-driving cars. Volvo has one too, and it's hitting the market next year in the form of an updated XC90, the first platform for all of the new autonomous tech available next year. However, the adaptive cruise control will be speed capped, and the driver will have to keep her hands on the wheel thanks to torque sensors in the steering column. Take your hands off the wheel and the autonomous driving disengages, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Activated at the push of a button on the steering wheel, this is a system designed to make traffic jams less tedious by allowing you to take your mind and eyes off the road, if not your hands off the wheel.
This was one of the few technologies on show not unique to Volvo, but was no less impressive for that. It may be a legal requirement that drivers keep their hands on the wheel on the road, but on the test track no such restrictions applied, and Volvo's prototype merrily drove itself at speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph) provided – and here's the crunch – it has a vehicle to follow.
Again, Volvo's Adaptive Cruise Control system combines cameras and radars, both tracking the position and distance of the car in front (the camera is looking at the azimuth formed by the vehicle's width at different distances). Again, from inside the vehicle, the initial effect is disarming despite the fact that it appears to work perfectly, though Volvo's engineer on hand said drivers will quickly adapt. The prototype was able to follow the car in front, turning, starting, stopping and accelerating (remarkably quickly) as necessary.
Though there are obvious safety reasons to cap the maximum speed of the feature, there are no major technical reasons to do so. In fact, Volvo's engineer explained, at higher speeds the greater distance between the vehicles brings the lane markings or road edges into view, and additional vision systems would come into play.
Adaptive self-steering cruise control systems are a natural evolution of automated braking systems already on the market. Though fully autonomous cars are years away, Volvo's demonstration showed that the technology to do more already exists. At the moment, public acceptance and the law are the limiting factors. Next year's XC90 is more autonomous than it lets on.
Pedestrian Detection in darkness with auto brake
To demonstrate its pedestrian detection in the dark (another world-first, according to the company), Volvo drove Gizmag to a nearby nuclear bunker. There, a prototype Volvo drove at a manikin with nothing but the Volvo's dipped headlights as a source of light. Of its own volition, the car came to a halt, a passenger-side displaying showing the manikin identified with a yellow box labeled with a numerical ID and a distance to the pedestrian. Volvo's engineer gamely got out and trotted around, and the system picked up and tracked him too.
An evolution of its existing daytime pedestrian detection systems, this technology requires an improved camera. Though no actual night vision technology is in use, a 1-megapixel camera with sufficient sensitivity for low-light vision will become a standard fixture of future Volvos.
In order to avoid unnecessary emergency braking, Volvo explained that the system is only activated when a collision would be almost inevitable, but is still designed to bring the car to a complete standstill at speeds of 40 kph (25 mph) or less. Above that the system applies maximum braking in order to minimize injury. The camera has a visual range of 30 m (98 ft) in darkness, 50 m (164 ft) during the day, and requires about half a second to identify the pedestrian.
All of which said, it appears that the driver will retain the ability to override the system by actively accelerating, which may come as welcome news to driving purists that wish to remain the master of their vehicles, but poses certain questions about the implications of drivers working against the automation. It's clear that Volvo work hard at addressing such questions, but until the technology is ready for launch, it won't be entirely clear what its answers are. In this case, we'll find out in 2014 . Volvo estimates that cars equipped with this system will reduce the fatality rate of pedestrian collisions in darkness by 42 percent.
Animal detection with auto brake
Like Volvo's pedestrian detection in darkness, its animal detection system with auto brake is a logical progression from its existing pedestrian detection system, and another technological world-first. North American and Scandinavian readers will forgive my British naivety when I say that, autonomous cars aside, the take-away lesson of the day was that moose are enormous. And because much of that mass is situated on spindly legs more or less at windscreen height, they pose a particular danger to drivers, especially given their tendency to blunder into the road with no warning whatsoever.
Because Volvo has the hardware it needs to solve this problem, the issue of animal recognition is one of machine learning, teaching the Volvo's onboard computer not only what moose, cows, horses and deer look like, but what they look like from every conceivable angle.
To demonstrate that it has this technology in working order, Volvo propped up a convincing full-scale model of a Eurasian Elk (A. a. alces) at the side of the road. Because the system brakes very suddenly, auto braking was disabled for the purposes of the demo, but again a computer display in the passenger seat showed that the car's camera had picked up the faux-moose many yards ahead of our driving by.
Though the system will bring the car to a halt if it can, the main aim here is to reduce speed to below 40 km/h or so to prevent a serious accident. To that end, Volvo has prioritized recognition of larger mammals, though smaller ones will follow. The animal detection with auto brake system will be available as an optional (likely pay-for) software update soon after the launch of the 2014 XC90.
Road edge and barrier detection with steer assist
Yet another world-first demonstration, Volvo's road edge and barrier detection system makes use of both cameras and radar to detect when the vehicle is approaching the edge of a road or a barrier at relatively shallow angles. When the vehicle gets too close, the car takes control of the steering column, making minimal adjustments to right the course of the car.
There are some limitations. When it comes to road edges, the camera needs to see different surface types to identify the roads's edge, so a covering of snow, for example, may render the system temporarily useless.
Again, though the system takes over the steering wheel, a concerted turn of the wheel will be sufficient to override it, so the driver can choose to drive off the edge or into a barrier if he really wants to.
Car 2 Car communication
Though this sort of technology is not unique to Volvo, and though it was perhaps the least showy of the technologies demonstrated on the day, the potential for car-to-car communication (or Car 2 Car, as Volvo puts it) is enormous. In one demo, a car ahead of our prototype encounters a wet patch on the road (Stora Holm's 9,000 sq m skid pad) and sends a signal to trailing road users via 802.11p Wi-Fi.
Volvo told Gizmag car-to-car communication works at a range of about 400 m (1,300 ft), but that cars will be able to send data to a datacenter (safely anonymized, Volvo assures us) over a 3G or LTE connection, making information downloadable by other road users, dramatically increasing the effective range of car-to-car communications. Direct car-to-car Wi-Fi connections will be more appropriate for some uses, such as an alert from nearby emergency vehicles that pops an alert in the driver's dash and plays an alarm sound to warn of an approaching emergency vehicle – a system demonstrated to great effect on the test track.
In fact, the name Car 2 Car communication doesn't do the system justice. One feature sure to resonate with drivers is communication with traffic lights. At a red light, a countdown in the driver's display shows the time until the lights change (with a sound at around the 4-second mark so you don't have to stare at it), and when approaching a green light, a green glow in the speedometer indicates the optimum speed to make it safely and efficiently across the junction. You need clever traffic lights, of course, but these are already beginning to be rolled out (in Gothenburg, at least).
Ultimately, all sorts of data including weather and traffic jam information will be sharable over the car-to-car systems. That Volvo recently hosted a meeting of auto manufacturers in Gothenburg suggests there may be cause for optimism that different brands of car will share information over open protocols, which is clearly the best outcome for all drivers. We'll have to watch and wait to find out, though, as car-to-car communications will arrive after 2014.
Though full autonomous driving may be some time away, Tuesday's demo shows that tremendous strides have been made. The fully specced version of Volvo's 2014 CX90 will not be a self-driving automobile, but it will drive itself in low speed conditions if it has a car to follow. Add in its ability to brake ahead of pedestrians (including in the dark) and animals, and steer away from barriers and road edges, and 2014 begins to look like the year that semi-autonomous driving will become a reality. Autonomous parking may be a little further away, but parking valets may do well to consider their career options before long.
As for Volvo's aim to prevent deaths and serious injuries in new Volvos by 2020 (and all accidents thereafter), it may ultimately have to convince driving purists to give up those overrides it's still building into its autonomous systems. Neither technology nor human behavior is infallible, and, if we put or prejudices aside, the question of which should take ultimate responsibility comes down to a number game. With 1.3 million annual deaths the number to beat, I rather like technology's chances.
Here are Volvo's videos from the day demonstrating the Autonomous Parking and Adaptive Cruise Control with Steer Assist prototypes: