Last month, I was driving down the interstate, somewhere near the southern corner of Virginia, when a thunderstorm opened up above me. Suddenly, a wall of water appeared 90m ahead. In a split second, I had zero visibility, a slick road, and a load of anxiety. So I let go of the wheel and felt the car find the lane. It was Volvo's semi-autonomous driving technology at work, and it scared me to death.
Illustration: Sam Woolley
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Volvo V90 station wagon that the company let me test for a week is supposed to be one of the safest and most sophisticated cars you can buy. But the idea that the car could see the road when I couldn't, that the sensors would take over when I activated the Pilot Assist mode, it frightened me. Even though the whole point of the feature is to help the driver avoid steering off the road or ploughing into another car, I found myself too anxious to fully trust the semi-autonomous technology that was keeping me safe.
But I'm an anxious person. Someone braver would realise that this next step towards a fully autonomous vehicle represents a complete technological revolution, one that would save countless lives in the years to come. Intellectually, I believe this, too. Hurtling down the interstate at 113km/h, however, handing over a little bit of control to Volvo's computer vision and seemingly robotic steering wheel broke my brain.
Let's back up and go over the details of Pilot Assist, the semi-autonomous function I tried out on several hundred kilometres of highway. Volvo has offered a version of Pilot Assist on its cars since 2015; it's basically a fancy kind of adaptive cruise control that uses radar to help you stay in your lane and avoid hitting the car in front of you. To engage feature, you just tap the cruise control button on the steering wheel and then scroll over to the Pilot Assist option. It shows up as a green steering wheel on the dash as well as the head-up display. To disengage it, you just tap the brakes.
I first tested it in a Volvo XC90, and it sort of felt like playing Pong with an SUV, since the technology would stop you from going off the road by bouncing you back in the other direction. Which is neat, but not necessarily mind-boggling.
In 2016, Volvo announced the second generation of the technology, an upgrade that qualified it as a Level 2 form of autonomous driving, according to SAE International's scale. This, I was told, was the business. The new, more advanced Pilot Assist II currently comes standard on the Volvo S90 sedan — this model was actually the first car to get semi-autonomous driving as a standard feature — and can be added as an option on the V90 and XC90. That's not bad for a station wagon that starts at $79,900. (The model I drove was slight souped up and had a sticker price of $US69,000 [$87,359].) If you have an XC90 with the first generation Pilot Assist, you can get the upgrade for free through a software update.
How does it work? Computers and sensors, my friend. Behind the Volvo V90's rearview mirror, there's a bank of sensors can identify the lines on the road and steer the car for you in multiple settings. The feature will also maintain a minimum distance between you and the car in front of you. The new Pilot Assist II works great on the highway, but it also performs surprisingly well on windy country roads. You cannot, however, take your hands off the wheel. If you do, the car will catch you and put the feature on standby until you grab the wheel again. Even if your hand is touching the wheel and not moving, the Volvo instructs you to apply steering or Pilot Assist will turn itself off. You'd think this would be annoying, but keeping my hand on the steering wheel actually made me feel safer and more alert — which is probably the point. The Pilot Assist II feature will only work under 130km/h, but that's a big improvement over Pilot Assist I, which only worked at speeds up to 50km/h.
It's all fun and games until you realise that you're not paying attention to your driving — or at least not paying attention like you used to. I found myself scrolling through playlists on Spotify through the built-in Apple CarPlay. I stared off into the distance longer than I ever would have if I didn't trust that the car wouldn't let me crash. And when I caught myself drifting, my instinctual reaction was to overcorrect, and slam myself into the centre of the lane.
The Volvo V90 (Volvo)
This is what's always worried me about the transition to autonomous driving. For at least a few years, humans either won't trust the cars to get them safely to their destination or they will trust the cars too much, believing that the semi-autonomous technology can do more than it can. This will be a real worry at least until we see an SAE Level 4 — full self-driving automation that will let a car completely control the trip. As former Gizmodo writer Alissa Walker argued last year, though, the humans in the car will still be at risk as long as they have the capability to override autonomous driving system, especially if they're drunk.
"You wouldn't imagine that in the back of a taxi, we put an extra steering wheel or brake pedal there for the passenger to grab ahold of anytime," Google's Chris Urmson told NPR at the time. "It would just be crazy to think about doing that."
Accordingly, when Google designed Firefly, its vehicle for self-driving car testing, the company decided not to include a steering wheel or pedals in the design. Truthfully, the Firefly fleet didn't need a steering wheel or pedals because it was being tested as a Level 4 self-driving car. Waymo, the company that spun off from Google's self-driving car division, retired all 50 Firefly prototypes, however, in favour of 600 Chrysler minivans that are now conducting public testing in Phoenix. We don't yet know if the company will eventually ditch the steering wheel and pedals on those vehicles.
We do know that more autonomous cars will appear on roads all over the world in the few years. Waymo, the new Alphabet company that grew out of the self-driving car team at Google, has been testing its self-driving cars on public roads for years now. More recently, Uber has started testing its own autonomous vehicles, and Lyft plans to offer rides in self-driving cars by the end of this year. So in the near future, expect to see a lot more Level 2 cars like the Volvo V90, and, I would wager, expect to see more distracted drivers. If Volvo's succeeded, however, that won't lead to more road casualties, since its cars' safety features are becoming so much more sophisticated.
Interior of the Volvo V90 (Volvo)
At the end of the day, it wasn't Volvo's technology that scared me. It was me. I could see myself developing bad habits and over trusting a technology that still has real limits. This is actually why Volvo and some other companies plan on skipping Level 3 models, which offer full self-driving capabilities but require a driver to be present. Manufacturers are eyeing a straight jump to Level 4 functionality. That way people won't be confused about which autonomous features any given car had and which ones it lacked.
I know I was confused with the Volvo V90, and I don't like to feel confused while driving at high speeds. Then again, I'll probably die before the self-driving takeover is complete. This technology isn't for me. It's for my kids and future generations of drivers.