Driverless cars

Cars that drive themselves are very nearly here! We went to test out Volvo's prototype that's being released to the streets in two years...
23 October 2014

Interview with 

Erik Coelingh, Volvo


Engineer Erik in Volvo's Driverless Car


There's a scene in the Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, in which Tom
Engineer Erik in Volvo's Driverless CarCruise settles into an automated vehicle. The car glides down the side of a building and onto a motorway, disappearing into a driverless fleet that navigates the city effortlessly. 

Of course, driverless cars have long been the realm of fantasy, but the world's fleet of self-driving cars could be operating much sooner than Minority Report predicted.

Graihagh Jackson flew out to Sweden to check out Volvo's 'Drive Me' project - the scheme which will be unleashing 100 driverless vehicles on to the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, in just 2 years...

Erik -  I'm Erik Coelingh and I work as Senior Technical Leader for safety and driver support technologies at Volvo Cars.  I'm responsible for a lot of the research and predevelopment of active safety systems that is systems that help drives to avoid collisions.  But also, for the development of cars that can drive themselves.

Graihagh -  We've all seen in sci-fi movies, cars that can drive themselves.  I'm sure I've seen one with Arnold Schwarzenegger who drives around in a driverless car in some action movie.  How did this become a reality and why?

Erik -  Well, for a couple of years, we've been working on this collision avoiding systems.  We see that it really makes a difference in reality.  If you extrapolate this development, it becomes very obvious that we are slowly, step by step moving towards cars that can drive themselves.

Graihagh -  And we're actually standing just outside from the prototypes you've got here in the drizzling rain.  So, let's jump in and have a drive.

Erik -  Okay, let's go.

Graihagh -  Now, I'm sure many of you are picturing a futuristic bubble of a car.  I know I was, but actually, looking at it from the exterior, you couldn't tell.  The interior wasn't too different either bar one key thing.

Erik -  So, in this car, I can just press one button and then the car will drive itself completely automatically.  Please understand, this is a very early prototype.  So also, if you look at the buttons, it's really prototype buttons.

Graihagh -  When you say prototype buttons, it's literally a bit of sticky tape that has ON written on it.  so, is it literally a case of switching it on and off then?

Erik -  Yeah, it is.  What we will do is that we will first drive maybe 10 minutes until we come to the ring road around Gothenburg.

Graihagh -  We drove in the normal fashion until we reached the driverless zone, a ring road around Gothenburg, where city council have allowed Erik and his colleagues to test out the technology amongst real flowing traffic.  The sticky tape button was pressed and...

Erik -  Right now, I've just released the steering wheel and the car is driving itself completely automatically.

Graihagh -  It's quite disconcerting.

Erik -  I've been doing this for awhile now and it just feels pretty un-dramatic.

Graihagh -  So, there wasn't a noticeable difference from switching from driving to an autonomous or driverless system.  Any slight sort of jolt change in speed, but otherwise, it was pretty seamless.

Erik -  The only thing that you'll notice in this case was that there's no engine torque.  So, you're slowing down really slowly.  But otherwise, it's pretty smooth.

Graihagh -  The driving wheel made minor twists and turns, aligning itself to be precisely equidistant between the two line markers. It even accelerated to drive exactly 70kph, the speed limit of this ring road. And even though we didn't have to do any emergency stops for pedestrians or stray cats, Erik assures me that it would stop and has better reaction times than you or I. Why? Because it can sense cars for 200m around us, and pedestrians for 80m - further than what us mere mortals would ever be able to detect. But how does this all dancing and all singing car see its surroundings?

Erik -  The cars use very advanced sensor technology in order to monitor the traffic environment.  So, we're using radars and cameras to detect cars, pedestrians, and we use a very accurate map, so we know exactly in which lane we are, what's happening around us.  Based on that information, the car blends its path.  So, we're planning what accelerations we should have, how to steer the car.  The car is then executing that using electric motors and break system, etc.

Graihagh -  The camera in the front, what is that specifically used for if you're using the radar to sense all the cars around you?  What's the camera being used for?

Erik -  We also use the camera to detect cars.  But cameras can also read speed limits on signs.  They can read the lane markers, a lot of different things.  But we use different sensing principles - camera, laser and radar to really get a robust system.  Because each sensing principle has its own advantages and disadvantages.  By combining different physical principles, you can get rid of the worst disadvantages and make a really robust system that work almost all of the time.

Graihagh -  Will it be using things like cloud data, connecting to the internet and that sort of thing?

Erik -  Yeah.  These self-driving cars, they will be continuously connected to the Cloud.  One reason is that we always want to be able to have the latest map data.  So for example, if there would be a construction site on these roads then we want to know exactly where this construction site is so that the car can prepare for it.

Graihagh -  So, my one concern with something being connected to the internet is that things can be very easily hacked.  Does that mean someone could tamper with your car and potentially, even steal away its autonomy?

Erik -  Those kind of risks are never zero.  They are really small.  We are aware of the risks that people try to break into the car and we're working very hard to minimise the risk.  But of course, you can never guarantee that the risk is zero.  That's just never the case.

Graihagh -  So, as you mentioned before, we are driving a prototype.  How are you going to go about making sure it is safe?

Erik -  When we're successful with the development and with the verification of the technology, then in 2017, we want to provide 100 vehicles that can drive themselves to customers in Gothenburg.  So, these people can use their cars in daily life.  They can drive to school, they can drive to work, whatever they want.  But if they are on one of the selected roads, the ring road around Gutenberg, they have the possibility to press this button and have the car drive itself, so that he or she can do something else behind the steering wheel.

Graihagh -  I can see the immediate benefit of being able to disengage while stuck in that boring commuter traffic.  I could hike back my chair, drink a coffee and check my emails, perhaps even checkout the latest news on, of course, nothing other than the new Naked Scientists app.  But are there any benefits beyond using my time much more pleasurably?

Erik - The benefits of self-driving can be that we can make traffic safer.  We can make traffic more energy efficient, less polluting, but also, we can make a road traffic system that is more efficient.  That is good at better traffic flow and better use the road capacity.

Graihagh -  So, we are just pulling back into Volvo's headquarters and our journey is complete.  So, do you really see this as the future then?  Is this what we're going to be driving around in 2054, in 50 years time?

Erik -  Well, I think it will happen.  The big question is, when it will happen.  But in 2017, we'll have 100 cars.  If that is successful, then we really have reached the stepping stone towards a road transportation system with self-driving cars that is much more sustainable.


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