Entering the field of autonomous driving - self-driving vehicles - is the next giant leap in Volvo Car Corporation's development of the world's safest cars.
Autonomous driving paves the way for more freedom behind the wheel. It creates the possibility to safely do something else, such as sending text messages or reading a book while the car is driven autonomously.
The first focus areas in Volvo Car Corporation's technology development are autonomous driving in slow-moving queues and, in a longer perspective, road trains on motorways.
"Our aim is to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving by moving beyond concepts and pioneering technologies that will reach the customers. Making these features reliable enough to use on public roads is crucial to boosting customer confidence in self-driving cars," says Marcus Rothoff, Product Attribute Manager, Driver Assistance at Volvo Car Corporation.
Autonomous driving - with steering, acceleration and/or braking automatically controlled by a vehicle that requires very little human interaction - is already highly present in the modern transport society.
"Hardly anyone thinks twice about being in an airplane that flies on autopilot. But being in a car that drives by itself while the driver reads a book is still quite a revolutionary thought for many people," says Marcus Rothoff.
Positive customer feedback
Of course Volvo Car Corporation's firm focus on designing cars around people includes investigating the consumer attitude towards self-driving cars.
Recent studies show that almost half of the respondents would be comfortable using a self-driving car (Accenture 2011). Almost 50 percent of drivers aged 18-37 would definitely or probably buy a vehicle capable of fully autonomous driving (J.D. Power 2012).
In 2011, Volvo Car Corporation invited a number of premium car owners to evaluate future driver support technologies at the company's test track - and one of the guests commented spontaneously: "A perfect support for driving on the Autobahn. If anything is going to encourage me to text in my car, it is this."
One of the research conclusions is that younger consumers in particular are willing to pay for technology that can help manage distractions created by the urge to be constantly connected in the car too. Autonomous driving would create the desired possibility to safely send text messages, update Facebook status or read a book while driving.
A necessity to attract young buyers
The necessity for a successful carmaker to please the next generation consumers was the main topic for Volvo Car Corporation President and CEO Stefan Jacoby's presentation at the 2012 Automotive News Europe Conference in Monaco. He said:
"Teenagers look at cars with different, less traditional eyes than we, their parents, do. When we regard the driver's seat as a symbol for freedom and mobility, they see the only place where they can't be constantly connected. And many of them think that this constant connectivity is more important than having a driver's licence and a car."
"This view is an exciting challenge for Volvo Car Corporation. We must design intelligent cars that take over the driving while you focus on something else. Such as sending a text or communicating on Facebook," Stefan Jacoby continued. "Personally, I am convinced that the majority of tomorrow's car owners will not even dream of buying a car without autonomous driving possibilities."
Several other advantages
The possibility for a driver to focus on something other than driving offers a number of other advantages as well:
"Allowing the car to act automatically is crucial when moving toward the vision that future cars will not crash at all. Our present systems for auto braking, lane keeping aid and adaptive cruise control could be described as the first steps towards autonomous driving. Now, we are moving towards technologies with a higher degree of autonomous driving in normal traffic situations," says Marcus Rothoff.
Autonomous driving in traffic queues
One of several ongoing autonomous driving projects at Volvo Car Corporation is a support system that automatically follows the vehicle in front in slow-moving queues.
"It has considerable scope for making the driver's life easier. Our first generation of this advanced technology focuses on driving in queues at low speeds. The car follows the vehicle in front in the same lane. However, it is always the driver who is in charge. He or she can take back control of the car at any time," says Marcus Rothoff.
Join the road train on motorways
The European SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project has focused on the attractive possibility of taking your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road in your own car on long motorway trips.
Volvo Car Corporation is the only participating car manufacturer in the project, which has been successfully completed in 2012.
The SARTRE platoon included a lead truck followed by four vehicles driven autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h - in some cases with no more than a four-metre gap between the vehicles.
"The road train is the best of two worlds. You can enjoy all the multi-tasking possibilities of public transportation behind the wheel of your own car," says Erik Coelingh, Technical Specialist at Volvo Car Corporation.
The self-parking car
Volvo Car Corporation also evaluates other autonomous driving possibilities:
How about walking away from your car at the entrance to an airport parking lot and letting it find a vacant spot by itself? Or maybe you would enjoy a fully automated drive in an enclosed area such as a safari park - allowing you to focus on getting great snapshots of the lions instead of driving?
"The successful implementation of autonomous driving in enclosed areas or on public roads requires partnerships with other stakeholders. Certain legal issues must also be resolved," says Marcus Rothoff. He adds:
"But we are convinced that autonomous driving will take car driving into a whole new dimension. And we intend to lead the way when it comes to bringing these new technologies beyond concepts, all the way to the customers."