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Volvo Matches Google's Test of City-roaming Cars

City streets are the toughest test for robocars

1 min read
A man typing on a tablet in a car.
Photo: Volvo

Not to be outdone by a pesky Internet upstart, yesterday Volvo said it had begun testing semiautonomous cars on city streets, just as Google did Monday.

Robocars find it far harder to drive in cities than on highways because of pedestrians, cross traffic, and a forest of strange objects; that's why the early tests will be limited in scope.  Volvo's 100-car test fleet will thread its way through just 50 kilometers of carefully reconnoitered roads in the Swedish city of Gothenberg, and the driver will always have the option of taking back control. Indeed, studying the handing off of control is one of the points of the experiment.

"The test cars are now able to handle lane following, speed adaption, and merging traffic all by themselves," said Volvo's Erik Coelingh, in a statement. A little over a year ago, Coelingh wrote for IEEE Spectrum on a first step-toward autonomy: cars that play follow-the-leader behind a truck driven by a human being.

In February he told Spectrum that much hard work will remain even after all the problems posed by this Gothenburg test are solved. "We can do this for a limited number of roads, but to scale the verification path is really challenging." Ten cars or 100 cars driving along 50 or 500 kilometers of well-mapped city streets is one thing; millions of cars moving through the cities of the world is another.

A lot of companies are working on the problem, including Audi, Mercedes, General Motors, and Nissan, which has set itself the target of selling autonomous cars by 2020. 

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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