A scene from the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall shows our protagonist jumping into a driverless taxi as part of a fleet that ferries passengers around using technology that wasn’t quite specified – this technology allowed the taxis to safely navigate traffic around the city. Total Recall is set in 2084 but the worlds first fleet of self driving city cars is upon us, 70 years early and they come from the Swedish car making company Volvo. Volvo have set up a two year project which will include unleashing 100 of them onto public roads in Gothenburg.

It’s called ‘Drive Me’, and it’s a joint initiative between the manufacturer and various local agencies. It’s backed by the national government and designed to discover the benefits to society of autonomous driving. Positioning country and company as pioneers in the subject will highly benefit them both.

As of now there are to be five prototype Volvos that have been let loose as the technology is perfected ahead of the January 2017 launch. However, they’re not “driverless” in the strictest sense. Someone is always sat in the driver’s seat, it’s just that they don’t need to touch the steering wheel, gearlever or pedals which is incredible in itself. It will be the same for the 100 cars, to be leased to local people for the duration of the pilot scheme. The vehicles drive themselves using a suite of advanced technologies and smart computer programming, freeing the occupant to do other things; That could be checking emails, playing on their ipad, reading a book, calling someone, or finishing a work project. As Volvo’s promotional video says, “Our next feature. Spare time”.

The project will involve self-driving cars using about 31 miles of specifically selected highways in and around Gothenburg, including three tunnels. They are typical commuter routes and dual-carriageways with frequent rush-hour queues. On all other roads, the driver will be in control in the normal way.

Erik Coelingh, who is a technical specialist with Drive Me, said: “Our aim is for the car to be able to handle all possible traffic scenarios by itself, including leaving the traffic flow and finding a safe place if the driver for any reason is unable to regain control, and to keep in lane safely.”

Journalistic car experts took a ride in one of the prototypes, ready for the road, a Volvo S60 saloon. A company engineer was the only person allowed to sit behind the wheel during the test spin. They navigated to the E6, the main Sweden-to-Norway coast road which goes through Gothenburg and is one of the certified roads for the project. Once there, and in busy traffic travelling at and above the 43mph speed limit, the driver simply pushed a button on the steering wheel. Watching him pull his feet from the pedals and remove his hands from the wheel was said to be strange, but more than anything was having him turn to the journalist car experts and chat was said to be worse.

The car uses a combination of cameras, laser and radar and up to 13 sensors around the car – plus GPS over map data, a cloud connection and a link to a local traffic control centre. It’s still work in progress; the S60 had a tendency to weave gently from one side of the lane to the other, but Volvo says that will be cured by the time the car is fully on the roads. The car is also not yet capable of dealing with lane-changes, merging traffic and overtaking. After 20 minutes a dab on the brake was enough to deactivate the system, leaving the driver to return the journalist car experts to Volvo HQ.

The potential benefits are greater than merely allowing us to spend more time surfing the internet on the way to work or reading a paper on the motorway. By removing the human element, computer-controlled cars can operate closer together in safety, making better use of road space and improving traffic flow.
However, that human element will definitely be needed to clear the biggest hurdle. The 1968 Vienna Convention states a driver must always be in control of a car while it’s moving. Opinions differ on what that means in reality, as Jonas Ekmark, Volvo’s manager of innovations, explained. “The Swedish interpretation is that as long as the driver has the ability to take over responsibility at any time, then it’s fine. In Germany it’s far stricter. There is a debate to be had and we are lobbying for that. I mean you could say the same for cruise control.”

Bullet-proof rules on insurance and liability will also need to be agreed. The day an autonomous car first knocks down a pedestrian, it will make global headlines.
Real-world feedback from the 100 users is a vital requirement that will shape future policy. “Will customers like it? We believe they will think it’s fantastic but we don’t know that, for fact, we hope everyone will love it” said Ekmark. He said there’s no shortage of people eager to join the pilot scheme, to be involved in something genuinely ground-breaking.
Volvo’s goal is for autonomous driving technology to appear on its production cars before the end of the decade. Drive Me is a step towards the company’s “Vision 2020” – its desire within six years to build cars that can’t physically crash – we wish them luck!

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