Volvo’s driverless car: All you need to know.

Published 10 November 2014

It’s no secret that car makers are working on ‘driverless’ cars - Google recently stole the headlines with its automated bubble cars. However, Volvo has been working on autonomous cars too, with a system called ‘Drive Me’.

So what is it?

Volvo is describing Drive Me as more of an aid than a replacement for the driver; essentially the car will drive itself on dull roads, like motorways, and allow the driver to relax as the vehicle takes over. When the system is ready for the public, Volvo claims it will allow the driver to sit back and work on from a laptop while the car negotiates traffic.

Once you get near your motorway exit the car will tell you to retake control in advance of your exit slip road. The system will also warn you if something is wrong, so it expects you to be awake at the very least - you won't be able to have a nap while your car takes you home. 

How does it work?

You can already buy cars with adaptive cruise control and lane assistance – Drive Me is an advancement and improvement on this. In fact, the prototype model, which has fairly limited functionality, uses the same sensors and cameras as a regular Volvo V60. Production cars will have a much bigger suite of sensors though – high resolution cameras, lasers and RADAR, facing in all directions.

These sensors will link to advanced maps of the road and GPS satellites, so the car can identify precisely where it is on the road. The sensors will also allow it to see the road ahead, behind and to the side, so it can safely change lanes to overtake slower traffic without any intervention from the driver.

The car will link up to a digital ‘cloud’ of information, so it will know where the autonomous driving system can be used and it will also detect things like traffic jams miles ahead.

Owners will program their destination into the navigation and then drive as normal. When they reach an appropriate stretch of road - which will be a motorway or dual carriageway - the system will tell the driver and then autonomous driving can be turned on. It’ll then keep working until it’s turned off or until the driver reaches the right motorway exit.

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The prototype works - but production models will be more advanced.

What is it like to use? 

The prototype isn't quite advanced enough to be left alone yet. It will only keep to its current lane, but it will happily follow the speed limit or slow down for cars in front. It is quite capable of following its lane too, but it is a limited prototype and it will sometimes make mistakes, largely because its sensors are not purpose designed and will struggle to pick up lines from time to time.

Consequently an experienced Volvo technician has to be 'driving' at all times - but they can take their hands off the wheel provided they pay attention and intervene when the car might get confused. That said, it's very impressive when you consider that it's using the same basic sensors as any V60 -and it gives a hint of what the production car might be like.  

Who will buy it?

Initially, not many people at all. Volvo is to produce around 100 Drive Me cars based on the upcoming XC90 to start with, which will be leased to Gothenburg residents from 2017. These cars will demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology, plus they will gather data to help improve the systems for full-scale production.

Volvo has been working with various partners on the project including the Swedish government, which has approved only a specific ring road for the trial. The system won't be functional elsewhere - it simply won't turn on if the driver attempts to activate it. 

However when production starts and the technology becomes mainstream it’ll be a handy system for anyone. The long term goal is to make it work on most motorways - and who really enjoys driving long distance on those?

What benefits does it offer?

A lot more than you would think. The obvious benefit is that it makes life easier – motorway driving is taken care of, giving you time to make phone calls, have breakfast, or just relax. But more importantly it should improve safety – the systems won’t get tired or distracted or angry. The car should simply do as it is told, maintaining a safe distance in traffic and making steady progress.

Volvo has much higher hopes than that, though, claiming that if enough autonomous cars are on the road they should seriously reduce congestion because they are better at maintaining a safe distance and anticipating traffic problems ahead. Autonomous cars require narrower lanes too, so motorways could be widened without anything more than a lick of paint.

Another system Volvo is working on is automated parking – you get to a drop-off zone and get out of the car, which then goes off to park itself. It tells you when it has safely parked via your phone and then, when you’re ready to go home, all you need to do is call it back to you.

This doesn’t just make parking easier but it means car park spaces can be much smaller, because doors don’t have to be opened.

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There must be some drawbacks though?

The Drive Me system will debut in 2017 but it will be restricted to a specific ring road in Gothenburg, Sweden, which isn’t much use to UK buyers. In order to work properly the system will need to be linked to advanced mapping, which hasn’t been done yet in the UK – and that’s before you get to legal matters.

In the 2017 trial, Volvo will be responsible if the system causes an accident – but it remains to be seen how insurance and legal problems will be solved when (or indeed if) Drive Me makes it to mass production. And they will need to be solved before automated cars become commonplace.

There are further limitations too. The system is designed for dual carriageways and motorways, so can’t negotiate junctions or roundabouts, nor can it deal with large numbers of pedestrians or cyclists. It won’t work on country roads, nor in town, in fog or when it is snowing. The system simply won’t engage on roads it isn’t designed for, nor in problematic weather.

When can I buy it?

If you’re living in Gothenburg then you could be driving a new XC90 with the system installed from 2017 – but numbers will be limited to around 100 cars, plus customers will probably be selected by Volvo to get a specific cross-section of users. These cars will be leased to customers to keep them affordable.

For the UK, chances are the cars will be ready before the road network and legislation is. The motorway network needs to be mapped in very precise detail and the authorities need to approve roads for autonomous cars before they can be introduced to showrooms. However, earlier adopters should be able to get behind the wheel in the first half of the next decade.

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Will it be expensive?

It’s too soon to say precisely how much the system will cost, but chances are it will be fairly affordable. Most of the technology used already exists in some form or another. Modern cars already have numerous RADAR sensors or cameras - autonomous cars will simply have more, plus a more intelligent on-board computer.

Don’t expect autonomous cars to set you back hundreds of thousands then. When Volvo launches the Drive Me system in showrooms it will probably be fitted to a range of models including, to start, the next generation of XC90. Drive Me will is likely to be an optional extra, costing several thousand pounds. 


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