Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Volvo - a new safety concious driverless car

Driverless cars have been very present in the news this year as the technology moves forward in leaps and bounds. There is another player in the field now as advances in driverless car technology are in the offing from Volvo who are hoping to have a driverless and crashless car on the road by 2020.  This car will be able to drive itself and will refuse to crash - it will have sensors so that if you attempt to drive it into a tree or over a cliff it will say NO or, in the words of ABBA, that other famous child of Sweden - "You owe me one!" 

Take a chance on me

Obviously this will impact on motorcyclists as hopefully this car, in its efforts to save its driver may avoid hitting any passing motorcyclist which it will inevitably pick up on its sensors.

Volvo are currently struggling in the car market and only sold 436,000 vehicles last year, and was expecting fewer sales this year. It was bought by Chinese auto maker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group for US$1.3 billion in cash in 2010. Because of their fading fortunes Volvo are one of the car manufacturers putting major efforts into the autonomous vehicle market in order to be ahead of the game and help their flagging business. 

"We are convinced this is the future and we want to get there first," Marcus Rothoff, head of developing driver assistance technology at Volvo, said.

I have a dream


Their aim is to be selling cars which can not only drive themselves but can avoid crashes by 2020.  The main obstacle at the moment seems to be a legal one rather than a technological one, to do with liability in the event of an accident - a new problem and a new grey area for a car which drives itself - is it the driver's fault if there is a crash or the manufacturer of the car and its self drive system? One to be fought out in the courts no doubt.  Currently moves are under way to amend international law, with the intention of removing blocks on the sale of fully autonomous vehicles

Despite legal hiccups, Volvo, which has always prided itself on its driver and passenger safety as it's best selling point, are carrying on regardless:

"Our vision is that no one is killed or injured in a new Volvo by 2020," says Volvo's head of government affairs Anders Eugensson.

Knowing me, knowing you

The technology which is being used in this car is being developed along similar lines to Google and General Motors, using sensors, lasers and cameras to read the road ahead in much the same way as a driver would.  There is also a gang of sensors inside the cab of the car which keep their little eyes on the driver to see if he or she is nodding off - bit like an external in-car version of the Numskulls from the Beano perhaps?



The new autonomous car system works by controlling the car's brakes, accelerator and steering and enables it to actually follow the car in front round bends and obstacles in the road, it is not just a cruise control system.  It is also able to operate in slow moving traffic which is moving at under 31 miles per hour.  The first wave of autonomous vehicles are due to be launched in 2014 and are expected to be capable of driving in heavy traffic up to 50km.

Another town, another train...er...car

The main in-car advance which Volvo is working on is wireless internet which will keep a convoy of vehicles talking to each other and copying each others movements like a wagon train.

Volvo claims that this car-train of self-driving vehicles would be perfect on long motorway journeys, allowing lines of up to six cars to drive autonomously almost bumper to bumper. Each car's braking, acceleration and steering would be controlled electronically by a lead truck driven by a professional driver.

The car driving itself in a convoy of vehicles would mean that each vehicle would be aware of the others and the driver's attention would not need to be engaged, leaving the driver free to work or rest.  Another benefit of leaving the car in charge would be that the journey would be smoother and therefore use 20 per cent less petrol - now that sounds like a win win.

On and on and on

A 'farmer's horse' analogy was used up by Mr Eugensson of Volvo who said:
"The car of the future will be just like the farmer's horse,"
 "The farmer can steer the horse and carriage but if he falls asleep the horse can still take him back home."
"And if the farmer tries to steer the carriage against a tree or off a cliff, the horse will refuse."


The winner takes it all!

Volvo is really going for it and has had 50 engineers working on crash-proof technology with automotive partners such as Ricardo UK. Their prototypes have covered many miles in testing on the roads of Spain and on the test track in Sweden in their best efforts to get the cars foolproof.

Burning my bridges!

What do you think about this technology because there is probably no going back now - although the sensors probably do reverse pretty well - are you looking forward to encountering the driverless car on the road?  Do you think it will be safer for those of us on two wheels or not, and how do you feel about the legal position if there is an accident?  For you will it be 'Gimme, gimme, gimme' or just 'Dum, dum, diddle'?  Let us know your thoughts.


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