Driverless vehicles on the road, but technology still has a long way to go
Reading a book or texting while driving is unacceptable for many. But things may be about to change, and not such a long time from now. Riding in a car that drives itself is the realization of a science fiction dream, one that is rolling steadily into our futures.
Many carmakers began seriously looking into self-driving cars a decade ago, but until just a few years ago the idea remained confined to laboratories.
Now companies such as the US Internet giant Google have made great strides with self-driving cars. Carmakers like Sweden-based Volvo Car Corp, which is owned by China's Geely Automobile, are starting to test their self-driving cars on the road.
Big questions remain: Will experiments with self-driving cars unlock new possibilities for millions of regular people and become the main mode of future automotive traffic? If so, when?
In a first, Volvo's Drive Me pilot project launched last December intends to put 100 "highly autonomous cars" on the streets by 2017 in the large Swedish city of Gothenburg, putting 100 residents in the cars and letting them travel on selected roads.
In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Volvo's CEO Hakan Samuelsson, and Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader, spoke about the company's cutting-edge technology and the opportunity for it to change the lives of millions of people.
They note that there are several different types of technology for driverless cars. Google's latest concept car does not have a steering wheel or a brake pedal, making it more like a movable basket with humans inside.
Unlike Google's autopilot concept, most carmakers are using a traditional car look and using driverless functions to assist manual driving.
The main aim, the Volvo officials say, is to achieve zero accidents by 2020 when using driverless technology, and to make future traffic more efficient through sustainable mobility based on the technology.
"Autonomous driving is definitely a prerequisite to reaching sustainable mobility. Driverless cars can be made much more energy efficient and safer. Also, the infrastructure can be optimized for a future society with more people living in mega cities with better access to mobility," Samuelsson says.
Coelingh says: "We believe we will have a future in which cars should not crash. In the shorter term, the aim is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured."
To achieve those goals, the company is developing autonomous features that reduce or eliminate human error by making cars better at driving themselves.
According to Coelingh, in 90 to 95 percent of all crashes, human error is partly or fully responsible. Eliminating human error offers the greatest potential for reaching the goal.
"An automation system that does not require supervision can be made safer than one that relies on human supervision," he says. The car can take control of the vehicle in dangerous situations such as drowsy driving.
In Gothenburg, near the company's headquarters, Volvo has built a driverless car research center and set up 50 kilometers of roadway for self-driving road tests in 2017.
As part of the Drive Me project, the company will lease the self-driving cars to selected Volvo customers, and "they can use the self-driving function on a 50 km long road which is designed and selected for self-driving," Coelingh says.
During a recent visit to Volvo headquarters, a few cars with the self-driving function were ready for road tests.
The prototype cars are loaded with cameras, sensors and radar, and come equipped with a GPS map system. Company officials expect to simplify the prototype, which relies on multiple detection devices and technologies to make the auto-driving function work.
The GPS and map system locate the position and speed of the car on the road. Sensors and radar are used to detect objects near the car and, based on that, send instructions to make a turn, brake or accelerate.
For our test drive, Coelingh drove a blue self-driving car to a section of public road and pushed a button on the steering wheel when we entered the test area. A computer in the car's boot collects data from the road and satellites, and then calculates the distance to the car in front of us and to cars in lanes on either side to keep the car moving on the right track.
After hitting the button, Coelingh takes his hands off the steering wheel and puts them on his knees.
"We started to test self-driving cars on this road in this spring. Sometimes it was really interesting to see other people's reaction when they saw my hands off the wheel."
We pass through a tunnel, and while the GPS loses the signal, it does not affect the car's auto-drive function.
"For a short time, this disconnection is OK. But it will cause problems if the disconnection time is too long," he says.
Coelingh does not allow the self-driving car to change lanes. But he says that by 2017, the cars would be able to reach a speed of 70 km/h.
Plans call for construction of an autonomous car park by 2017 to make full use of the technology. The project and research leading up to it will have cost around 500 million kronor ($69 million, 54 million euros) between 2000 and 2017.
Autonomous parking will increase space efficiency and make it possible to use less attractive areas for parking, Coelingh says. "You can park many more cars in the same area, like you can fit more cars on the road through self-driving technology."
In a computer demonstration video, the self-parking system finds the best location through a cloud computing system and drives the car without a driver to a parking space.
"When I experienced sitting in one of Volvo's self-driving cars, I was absolutely convinced that autonomous drive will open up fantastic possibilities," Samuelsson says. "The driving will be safer, more sustainable and I can manage my own time if I want to."
According to Hamid Zarghampour of the Swedish Transport Administration, self-driving technology will completely change the way people drive.
"Our responsibility is to build long-term planning for the transport system, including construction, operation and maintenance of the roads and railways, The goal is an accessible and safe transport system which takes into account the environment and health.
"However, the goal is very hard to achieve based on current technology and transportation systems. Currently the main problems are punctuality, capacity, robustness and safety.
"We found self-driving tech would solve this problem, so we have cooperated in the self-driving concept and I believe the tech will solve the problems in one way or another."
But while our short road test was successful, many problems are unsolved.
For one, will the law allow driverless cars on the road? It is a hot topic in many countries.
The UK government announced in July that driverless cars would be allowed on public roads as of January, the BBC reported. It invited cities to compete to host one of three trials of the technology to start at the same time. Also, ministers ordered a review of the UK's road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines.
In the United States, California, Nevada and Florida had all approved tests of the vehicles by July, and in California alone, Google's driverless car had done more than 480,000 km on the open road.
In 2013, Nissan carried out Japan's first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on a highway, the report said.
Coelingh admits, however, that in some countries such as China it is difficult to develop self-driving systems given the complicated traffic.
For now, the Volvo self-driving system still acts like an assistant to drivers. For a completely driverless car to function in a traffic jam, more sensor technologies are needed than what is now available, he says.
In order to make a driverless system robust, double the sensors are needed and two computers would be installed in the car.
"It would be very expensive in the beginning," he says.
"We will come to China with self-driving cars, too, but in the very beginning of this era we will start in quite controlled conditions. It will be a step-by-step development, but there is no doubt that autonomous driving will be available to customers in China," Samuelsson says.