Volvo and a consortium of Swedish research institutions will test self-driving cars in street traffic in and around Gothenburg starting in 2017, they announced yesterday. The project begins next year with customer research and hardware development. It will culminate in a fleet of 100 cars that will alternate between driving themselves and allowing their human occupants to drive, depending on where they are.
The Swedish initiative has the support of Gothenburg's city authorities. U.S. regulators are also working on how to handle self-driving cars. Cities stand to benefit from reduced traffic and, if self-driving cars join car-sharing schemes, less demand for parking. US regulators have not yet indicated how they will handle self-driving cars, but this Swedish announcement suggests one way of easing self-driving cars into the traffic flow: partial access. Only certain roads will be designated for the Gothenburg test, according to Volvo.
That may seem restrictive compared to Google's self-driving vehicles, which have clocked over 160 000 kilometers on a wide variety of U.S. roads, but the restriction reflects the limitations of self-driving cars today. Despite a proliferation of sensors that allow cars to see further and in more bands of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans, the computers that analyze that sensory data can still have a hard time distinguishing between a cardboard cutout and a human child or responding to unanticipated scenarios. Some parts of a commute are simpler than others, though, and car companies in North America, Japan, and Europe are investing in systems to take over during those driving regimes.
They are also investing in safety features that will work with human drivers, such as Ford's emergency autosteering feature, which will one day be useful in self-driving cars. Volvo's next model of car, the XC90, will have self-parking and some platooning features. Like other carmakers working on self-driving cars, Volvo is breaking the problem down into smaller pieces.
Since the Gothenburg test will involve switching between self-driving and human driving, it should help Volvo explore the issue of handing control back to the driver. It will also force them to deal with another question that worries BMW's head of driver assistance and perception "The great problem is how can we handle critical situations where there is not enough time to give back [control] to the driver? " he said in an interview last month.
Lucas Laursen is a journalist covering global development by way of science and technology with special interest in energy and agriculture. He has lived in and reported from the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Mexico.