Volvo confident it can get its ‘unsupervised’ highway driving mode approved in California
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Volvo confident it can get its ‘unsupervised’ highway driving mode approved in California

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Volvo has announced a new advanced driver assistance system called the Ride Pilot system, where its vehicles drive themselves on certain highways without any human supervision. Ride Pilot will be available as a subscription service to customers in California, the company announced at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show.

It’s an ambitious plan that comes with its own risks and sets Volvo apart from its competitors, many of whom plan to launch self-driving technology as part of a robotic-axi service rather than personally owned production cars. But Volvo believes that by limiting the operational domain — or the conditions under which the car can drive autonomously — to just highways, it creates vehicle technology that is not only safer but also cheaper.

“We don’t need hands on the wheel and we don’t need eyes on the road,” Henrik Green, the automaker’s chief technology officer, said in an interview with The edge. But when asked if drivers can take a nap in the car with Ride Pilot active, Green protested.

“We’re still very purposefully indiscriminate in the wake-up time we need,” he said. “Taking a nap requires a wake-up time, so let’s see how far and when we can get there. You have to be able to take control and take back driving responsibility within a certain amount of time.”

Pending regulatory approval, the new feature will initially only be available to customers in California. Green described the state as having a “good geographic location in terms of weather conditions: it’s sunny, it has good road conditions.”

Volvo’s upcoming (and unnamed) electric SUV, to be announced later this year, will be its first vehicle with Ride Pilot. Volvo’s Concept Recharge, unveiled last summer, is intended as a preview of that SUV, as well as how the new driver assistance system will be presented with a fully integrated roof lidar from supplier Luminar. The Concept Recharge’s design will likely be similar to that of the XC90 electric successor due later this year.

In addition to Luminar’s lidar, Volvo’s Ride Pilot system will be powered by software developed by Zenseact, a Volvo subsidiary that collaborated with the carmaker’s own team of engineers. Based in Florida, Luminar has worked closely with Zenseact’s team in Sweden on full-stack autonomous driving software for series-produced vehicles.

Volvo’s Concept Recharge electric SUV, first unveiled in summer 2021.
Image: Volvo

Green won’t say when it plans to officially activate Ride Pilot, but he noted it will almost certainly be sometime after 2022. go and [the regulations] should be,” says Green.

Ride Pilot is what the Society of Automotive Engineers would define as a Level 3 autonomous system, where driver supervision is not required in a highly controlled environment, such as on certain mapped highways. But in level 3 systems, the driver still has to be ready to take control in an instant, leaving it somewhat in a fuzzy zone between advanced level 2 driver assistance systems, such as Tesla’s Autopilot, and completely driverless vehicles, such as the autonomous Waymo taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles oversees the largest autonomous vehicle testing program in the country, with more than 60 companies allowed to use test vehicles on public roads. Only a handful are approved to drive fully autonomous vehicles without safety drivers at the wheel, and even fewer are approved to use vehicles for commercial purposes.

But what Volvo wants to do is a little different. The automaker is applying for a permit to test autonomous vehicles on public roads through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Rather than deploying its vehicles as part of a taxi or delivery fleet, Volvo wants California’s approval to offer its Level 3 autonomous system to customers as part of a subscription service — something the state has yet to do for any company. to do.


According to the RDW, a company that wants to deploy Level 3 vehicles on public roads must obtain state approval before making its technology available to customers. Volvo has not yet applied for a deployment permit, a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

Offering Ride Pilot as a subscription poses a lower barrier for consumers, Green said, given the large percentages of people leasing their vehicles rather than owning them. “Not everyone is sitting on a large amount of cash available,” he said. “Subscription is a very low threshold that you can try out.”

Most AV companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have said they are skipping Level 3 and working solely on Level 4 technology. The reason is that level 3 is considered potentially dangerous given the potential for drivers to become confused about when to take control of the vehicle.

Other automakers have been caught off guard by the promise of Level 3 driving. In 2018, Audi said its A8 sedan would come with a feature called Traffic Jam Assist that, when active, would relieve human drivers of the need to pay attention during stop. -and-go traffic. But the feature was subject to approval from local authorities, and Traffic Jam Assist remains dormant in most markets around the world. Audi has no plans to activate the feature, and Level 3 automation remains a quagmire of legal, regulatory and business challenges.

Another potential hurdle is the potential for abuse by customers. A good example is Tesla’s Level 2 “Full Self-Driving” beta software which, despite its misleading name, still requires drivers to be vigilant while in use. Tesla customers often ignore the company’s warnings and abuse Autopilot to capture themselves performing dangerous stunts. This kind of rule-breaking is to be expected, especially in a society where the pursuit of power has become a way of life for many people.

Green says it is a communication and technology challenge for Volvo to make sure its customers know when to adopt the system and when to abuse the system.

“It should be clear in the communication to the consumer,” he said. “It should be clear in the vehicle while operating it. So it is a very important area.”

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