Test-Driving the Car that Drives Itself

Volvo plans to have 100 autonomously driven cars on the road in 2017. We went along for a ride in one of them in Gothenburg, Sweden.

It’s normally alarming to ride in a car with a driver whose attention lies on everything but the road ahead. In this instance, however, that’s the point. I’m sitting next to a Volvo test-driver on a highway in Gothenburg, Sweden, who actually isn’t driving at all. As we take the curves and allow cars to shift into our lane, this car is driving itself—and it’s going pretty fast.

Autonomously driven cars for everyday use might still seem a thing of the future—even as companies like Google garner headlines for developing self-driving prototypes. But here in Sweden’s second-largest city, Volvo intends to have autonomous cars (or “Drive Me” cars, as they refer to them) on the road in 2017.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Volvo, along with the entire car industry, is giving up on the idea that people can drive safely. The Swedish car company, which has a reputation for putting a premium on safety, says 90 percent of crashes involve human error. The record speaks for itself: In the United States alone, 33,561 people were killed in car accidents in 2012 and an estimated 2.36 million were injured, according to government statistics.

Autonomous cars, Volvo believes, will help it achieve its ambitious new goal: no deaths or serious injuries in a new Volvo automobile by 2020.

In just a few years, an initial rollout of 100 self-driving cars will be able to navigate about 31 miles of Gothenburg highway using radar, camera and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technologies to monitor the environment around the car. A communication link between the Volvo cloud and the vehicle will also deliver the latest map data to the car. (Satellite navigation systems are not precise enough and don’t work in tunnels or parking garages.) The Swedish government is committed to upgrading more of its road infrastructure each year after that—a scheme that Matts-Åke Belin, an official with the Swedish Transport Administration, describes as a “digital revolution for transportation.”

In turn, that means drivers will enjoy their own revolution: the ability to turn their attention to tasks like texts, e-mails, breakfast, grooming and other currently frowned-upon distractions. It also might mean less traffic: Since autonomous cars can steer more precisely, highway lanes can be made narrower to maximize space on existing road networks. But perhaps best of all, the technology will also mean that some vehicles are able to park themselves, and a smartphone app can summon the cars back to you. It’s valet parking for everyone.

Of course, drivers still retain the ability to operate the car on their own (the system is activated as easily as cruise control is now). But as world populations consolidate around mega-cities and heavy traffic increases commuting time (and takes the joy out of driving), the ability to have the car handle mundane driving safely is an appealing thought—though it may take some time for people to fully embrace it. “The main challenge is not a technical one,” says Belin. “The hard part is gaining consumer acceptance and understanding.”