Image: XC90 (Volvo)
The system's current name is Highway Pilot, according to Henrik Green, Volvo's Senior Vice President of Research & Development. The system will allow you to, "to 'eat, sleep, work, watch a movie, relax, do whatever," Green said today, a bold ambition for a company that previously had only said they had planned to be testing a Level 4 system by 2021.
The first immediate grain of salt to be had here is that the system Green described is not actually full Level 4, though.
The Volvo wouldn't be able to operate unsupervised on all roads, only roads that were mapped and roads that the system was confident it could safely navigate — highways, basically, hence the name. Volvo plans to launch the system with the next generation XC90, and Green said it will be a premium feature costing somewhere in the "four figures" — at least.
The car's navigation will be based on mapping data, lidar, and communications with the cloud, Green said, though a lot of details still need to be worked out, he admitted, like whether the cars will even be allowed on American roads, a not-insurmountable obstacle but an obstacle nonetheless.
Green's comments were in step with earlier comments made by Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson, who said in an interview with journalists that the car company had little-to-no faith in Level 3 automation. In Level 3, cars do a lot of the tasks of driving but still require the driver to pay attention. That's because, Samuelsson said, in Level 3 people naturally tend to not pay attention even if they have been told to, setting up situations that can be "dangerous."
"The man-machine relationship is something you have to be careful about," Samuelsson said. "It can take minutes to reactivate us. That is something we've learned."
Volvo's been testing various autonomous systems for years now, and Samuelsson said that it was incumbent to get it right the first time for a driving public that is already sceptical, since getting it wrong might mean people losing faith in autonomous cars altogether. Volvo, it should not be forgotten, has a bit of a rough history with a sceptical public.
"You should be very careful being in some middle territory there because that is very dangerous," Samuelsson said. "That could jeopardize the whole process — which could save thousands of lives in the long-term."
What that means for Volvo in the short-term is that Pilot Assist, its current semiautonomous system, might be its last before Highway Pilot.
"I think you need to go all the way," Samuelsson said.
There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of Volvo's ambitious timeline, which may or may not happen, and the company has a lot of technological, regulatory, and manufacturing hurdles to clear before it gets to the finish line, but what was clear was their vision, at odds with companies like Audi and Fiat Chrysler, both of whom have real ambitions for Level 3.
"The systems can give you comfort but you are responsible," Samuelsson said, adding that Volvo hoped to one day change that. "Or, you say: This car is."