If self-driving technology has seemed more like science fiction than fact so far, it's because of not just the limits of the software, but the legal rules as well. All trials of self-driving vehicles in the United States so far have involved a handful of corporate employees in just a few states, and even then the results look like a new form of cruise control rather than something that could change how we live.
Today, Volvo announced a real, on-the-streets test of 100 of its self-driving cars — a first in the world, and one that will put regular owners in the seats of what it says are production-ready autonomous vehicles, by 2017.
Doing so requires far more than the 28 cameras, sensors and lasers Volvo says its system uses, along with a complex set of software rules, to tackle nearly 100 percent of all driving situations. It also required the approval of lawmakers in Sweden and Gotheberg, the city which will allow owners of these Volvos to legally cruise the streets while reading or chatting away on their phones from behind the wheel.
Making it possible for computers to understand everyday driving situations requires multiple types of radars, several cameras, a multiple-beam laser scanner in the front bumper and 12 ultrasonic sensors — the kind normally used to tell you if you're about to back into a pole. All of these are permanently linked to a special high-definition 3D map, refined GPS sensors and the local traffic control office — which can not only warn of jams, but command inattentive drivers to shut off their autopilots and drive themselves if necessary. And all of the systems have fail-safe modes and backups in case something goes wrong.
“It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle," says Erik Coelingh, a technical specialist at Volvo Cars, "but if you want to create an impact in the real worldyou have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers."
Volvo has long said self-driving cars were the logical next step in its stated goal of eliminating deaths and serious injuries in its vehicles. While all major automakers and companies like Google are also exploring the technology, none have been quite as forward as Volvo in predicting when it will come to fruition; most major automakers have said it would be at least 2020 to 2025 before fully self-driving vehicles were in production, due to legal hurdles as much as technical ones. If the company that invented the three-point seat belt can perfect self-driving cars, that traffic jam could break much sooner.