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What is happening with the self-driving vehicle experiments?

Gary Jaffarian updates us on the research and development of self-driving or autonomous vehicles of which Volvo is a leader.

Volvo autonomousThere were international symposia in Germany last month and one in San Francisco in March that brought together designers and engineers of autonomous vehicles. As you know, advanced driver assistance systems and fully automated driving vehicle technology is not new. Since the final meeting of the Eureka Project in Paris in 1994, it’s been clear that fully autonomous self-driving vehicles are set to become a reality, yet 20 years later the final stages of testing, validation and fail-safing pose a significant challenge to the automotive industry.

The rigorousness and thoroughness of the testing processes need to be conducted at an altogether higher level than ever done before to satisfy safety requirements. The IEEE (a professional association of electrical engineers) also held their annual symposium to discuss the advent of driverless vehicles. This undertaking is bringing together leading IT professionals, engineers and automotive manufacturers to collaborate.

IEEE driverless-car-B3

I wrote about Volvo’s research with driverless vehicles in 2016, with the premise that driverless vehicles offer a level of safety by eliminating human error in favor of electronics. While there will still be a driver behind the wheel, the technological achievement is amazing and will be a major feat, surpassing in our industry the invention of the automobile.

In June of 2016, Boston was selected by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a focus-city for policy and pilot development of autonomous vehicles. The first experiment held in Boston earlier this year and monitored by a Cambridge company, NuTonomy Inc., was the first public trip by a self-driving car in Massachusetts, and it concluded — without incident — an hour later. While their CEO said the experiment went perfectly, it was unclear if the engineers in the vehicle had any input on the control of the vehicle.

NuTonomy Inc. launched the pilot program on an industrial park’s 3 miles of roads, using a car guided by artificial intelligence software and fitted with cameras and other sensors, including a laser-based technology that detects nearby objects.

The company, a startup using technology developed at MIT, is also testing its systems as part of a self-driving taxi project on some public roads in Singapore.

According to The Boston Globe, don’t expect to see NuTonomy’s self-driving cars zipping through the Boston anytime soon. NuTonomy will complete 100 miles of test drives at the park in daytime and in good weather before progressing to more difficult nighttime and poor-weather tests.

After another 100 miles under those conditions, the company can request to expand its tests to outside the industrial park — again, first in daytime and in good weather — to the surrounding South Boston Waterfront. NuTonomy said it has tested its cars at night and during light rain and snow at its other locations. In its application, NuTonomy said its self-driving cars “are programmed to prevent any collision or other motion that would create a risk to human life or health.” The company plans to limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.

While the only injury reported in any of the world-wide autonomous driving tests is a sprained wrist, the tests and technology is moving ahead steadily, but slowly. Volvo is one of the leaders in autonomous vehicle testing and is planning to test 100 of their autonomous vehicles in Sweden this year with ordinary drivers and they are seeking volunteers in the United Kingdom to test these vehicles. With Volvo’s focus on safety, they are piloting an S60 model to be autonomous with the same rigorous safety systems that they have in all their models.

Participants in the trial will have to be sober and competent to take over controls at any time. Volvo claims its Drive Me system can handle a range of driving conditions including “smooth commuting to heavy traffic and emergency situations” although its test roads will be without pedestrians, cyclists or on-coming traffic. Volvo has taken a slightly different approach to automated vehicles compared to most car manufacturers and technology companies, including Google. Its first tests were on roads by railways where drivers could join a line of cars that would autonomously match speed and follow the lead train car. Volvo is aiming for a 100% safety record before any of these vehicles are released to the public.

Volvo is also testing autonomous XC90 vehicles this year in Europe. They believe that their first unsupervised autonomous vehicles will be in the market by 2021. “What makes our approach to autonomous driving so unique is that we focus on people – not just on technology,” said Volvo officials.

Based on these experiments and ongoing research, I still don’t expect we will see any autonomous vehicles marketed commercially until sometime between 2021 and 2030. Stay tuned as this is going to be interesting!

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Gary Jaffarian

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