When you think of automated, self-driving cars you probably think of Google. But it's not the search giant that's forging ahead with self-driving cars, or at least the beginnings of them that you can actually buy. No, incredibly it's Volvo of all historically-less-than-exciting cars, and the motor company has some truly amazing tricks up its sleeve.
We've already seen a glimmer of what Volvo's capable of with its frankly dream-worthy auto-parking prototype. I got to see that thing in action, along with a load more incredible automated driving tech all hidden under the guise of safety.
You see, Volvo's ambitious aim is to get to the point where no one is either killed or seriously injured in one of its cars from 2020. Having studied driving habits, car safety technology, and structural materials, the only way Volvo sees that dream becoming a reality is by either removing, or at the very least minimising, the human element. The conclusion all of Volvo's research has come to, is it's you and I who are the weakest link in the car-driving chain. We make mistakes, get distracted -- apparently some 30 per cent of people's time spent behind the wheel is focussed on anything other than driving -- and cause crashes. We're pretty much all terrible drivers, regardless of the fact that almost everyone reckons they're above average at least, simply brilliant at best.
So, in an effort to make you safer, Volvo's putting in a load of world-first car tech into its new line to avoid accidents when the driver can't or won't react in time and, eventually, remove your input entirely to make the roads safer, better, faster, and less congested -- everything we'd want on British roads, basically.
To do this, Volvo's been showing off a load of technology prototypes for both features that'll hit the market just next year in its new XC90 4x4, as well as stuff its pioneering engineers have in the pipeline for the next 10 years or so.
First up are some fancy camera and radar systems that'll essentially help you out when you're either not paying enough attention or are having issues actually seeing things. We've already seen technologies like Ford's Auto City Stop that'll stop you when you're careening into the car in front in stop-start traffic -- something Volvo has had across its fleet of cars since 2006 -- but the Swedes have taken things a whole lot further. The technology going into the new 2014 XC90, for instance, can detect and monitor pedestrians in the road even in the dark (a world-first according to Volvo), plus any unlucky cyclists who happen to be facing a smack to the chops by your front bumper. It can then either warn you, or if you're not doing something to avoid hitting the poor sucker wandering (probably drunk) in the road, it'll automatically weigh anchors for you, stopping the car abruptly just short of the chap.
Having tested it out myself, I can tell you it's a very strange and gut-punching feeling, which will throw you into the windscreen if you're not wearing your seatbelt. A gentle deceleration this is not, but then you wouldn't want it to kick in and brake for you unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course, if you happen to be making motions towards braking and preventing a person-on-bonnet mess, the car will monitor your brake pressure and add more if you're not giving the pedal enough welly.
Likewise, as moose are apparently a big issue in Sweden, the same system will be able to spot large animals for the first time through advanced machine-learning pattern recognition. The aim is to slam on the brakes and at least reduce the speed of the impact (if you can't actually stop it), because those pesky beasts are likely jump out of blooming nowhere into your path. It's not like moose impacts are a big deal in Britain, admittedly, but we have the odd deer or two, and the Queen really doesn't like it when you manage to take out one of her prized game.
Of course, you also need help actually keeping your prized motor on the road, so Volvo's got you covered on that front too. Its new road edge and barrier detection system with steer assist uses radar and sensors on the front and sides of the car to monitor how close you're getting to the edge of the road or that horrifying-looking metal fence that's just asking to make a mess of your car. Catering for the sleep-deprived, as long as you're propelled along at above 30mph and under 125mph (you law-breaker you), the car will gently correct your drifting motions with a slight adjustment to the wheel, keeping you at least 30cm away from the barrier or road's edge. However, if you're veering rather violently towards it, the car will brake and swerve to avoid hitting anything, giving you a bit of a shock in the process, I can tell you. Still, it's better than ploughing off the road at high speed, because apparently around 50 per cent of road fatalities come from cars unintentionally leaving the smooth tarmac and careening into things.
By far the most useful autonomous-driving assist system Volvo's launching next year, however, is its new adaptive cruise control with steer assist. This genius bit of tech will allow your car to essentially play follow the leader. Coming out of Volvo's promising work in road trains, the system uses a front-mounted camera and radar to not only adaptively match your speed to the car in front, but also actually do the steering for you. That means you effectively don't have to do anything in slow moving or motorway traffic, even around the bends, as the car's steering wheel will spin all on its own, making sure you keep in lane and safely on the road.
You do have to keep your hands actually on the wheel (a legal requirement, apparently), but you can just let the car do its thing. Having tested this myself in a Volvo prototype, I can tell you it's a rather unnerving experience, but it's most definitely the future. The car might not be able to drive all on its own yet, legally in the UK anyway, but Volvo's new XC90 with this brilliant piece of autonomous tech is really rather close to the real deal. If you do any sort of commuting in traffic, trust me, you'll want this in your life.
Moving on to slightly more future gazing (but already well implemented) technology, we've got that fantastic go-off-and-park-itself blinder of a feature that was shown off recently. It's all very well having a car that'll park itself with you in it -- measuring up the space and doing the steering for you because you can't park, obviously -- but Volvo's working on a whole other level. As we saw recently, its new car packed with radar, cameras, ultrasonic sensors and GPS, is capable of driving off and finding a parking space all on its own.
Having seen the thing in action, it is every bit as impressive as it sounds. Using a simple app on your phone, you command the car to either go and park itself in the nearest available space, or to come back and pick you up. The prototype I saw worked flawlessly, parking with impressive precision, effortlessly avoiding other cars, people and obstacles. In fact, Volvo reckon the technology is essentially ready to go, but that it requires a few changes to infrastructure, which is why we're sadly not going to see this in cars you can buy for another five to 10 years.
Once car parks have created dedicated drop-off and pick-up places, as well as some system to tell the cars how many spaces are free and where abouts they are, oh and some sort of solution to how to pay for a parking ticket I guess, things will be dandy. No longer will you have to trundle around the multi-storey, desperately seeking a space and then walk miles to the exit. Nor will you have to get wet in the rain walking to or from your car. Your car will simply turn up on command, and that'll be the best thing since GPS in cars, in my opinion.
Finally, Volvo's been working hard on the next evolution of connected car. I'm not talking about a simple internet connection, or some appification of your car; that stuff is just the start. Volvo's building car 802.11p Wi-Fi into its cars for some direct car-to-car or car-to-infrastructure communication, aiming to kick things off in 2016.
What does that really mean? Well, imagine knowing when the traffic light is going to go green or what the best speed is to cruise straight through a whole set of lights all at green. That's not all, the road should be able to tell you about signage, just in cased you missed that 60mph sign, any upcoming road works or temporary speed limits, as well as the fact that some idiot up ahead has just shot through a red light and might be gunning to mate metal-on-metal with the side of your car. In fact, the possibilities of car-to-infrastructure communication are limitless, and will be vital for true totally autonomous driving in the future.
Volvo has also been showing off some smart car-to-car communication too. One example we were shown was treacherous road warnings, which a car fires off a message to others around it, or to the cloud for other cars in the area to ping when approaching the same stretch of road. Another concept is the emergency vehicle warning system, which alerts you to an incoming cop car or ambulance. Or there's the heavy braking or broken-down vehicle warning, where the cars in front warn you that there might be something inconveniently placed blocking the middle of the road.
Although these are only concepts, and therefore just the tip of the iceberg as far as car-to-car communication is concerned, they were all shown off in real, driving prototypes, genuinely showing that an intelligent connected-car future really isn't that far off.
There's no doubt autonomous driving cars are the future -- every sci-fi film worth its salts has some sort of amazing self-driving/flying network of vehicles -- and Volvo's forging ahead under the guise of safety, but it's not the only one working to that goal. Google's made some impressive in-roads already with fully automated cars, Audi's working on automated parking too, so is BMW, and even Toyota has one. But next year's XC90 will be the closest thing you can buy to a car that drives itself by miles. The only problem is that you might need to take out a mortgage to afford one.