189511 Volvo XC90 Drive Me test vehicle

Volvo Expands Autonomous Driving Team

Future of Transportation

With all deference to Elon Musk, DARPA, and the boffins at Google and Uber, if anyone is going to make this self-driving car stuff work safely, it’ll probably be Volvo. Volvo, who is slowly shedding their boxy but practical image, still retains its foundational impression: Safety. And one of the public’s greatest concerns about self-driving cars is just that: safety.

“Flip a switch, and you can drive me to work, right?” It’s that appended “right” that everyone focuses on. The idea of a self-driving car sounds pretty cool, but the reality of making it work and making buyers believe in it, is something else entirely.

Serious Players

The concern, in short, breaks down like this: I want to get in my new car and get from here to there using the new self-driving feature, but what if . . . what if a kid runs out in front of my car? What if the car sees an idling truck as a threat and swerves into oncoming traffic? What if the computer software has to choose between saving my life in the driver’s seat over a crosswalk full of people or an oncoming, out of control school bus? These are the Gordian Knots of software that give people like Musk et al., numerous fits and nightmares trying to figure it all out.

Enter Volvo, Autoliv, and NVIDIA.

Volvo needs no real introduction to any of the gearheads out there. Autoliv is a automotive safety systems company that develops and manufactures safety bits and bobs for all major automotive manufacturers in the world. They raked in over $10 billion in sales in 2016 alone. Autoliv is also the exact opposite of a really good name for a Swedish death metal band, Autodeath (or, perhaps Autodeth). Any of you kids out there that are into black and white makeup, hoarse vocals, and crunchy guitars, you can have that one on me as a freebie.

189557 Volvo XC90 Drive Me test vehicle
Photo: Volvo Car Group.

Level 4 & Beyond?

NVIDIA is, of course, the people that invented the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) back in 1999, and really cranked the visuals on gaming up to eleven. As far as we – and Volvo and Autoliv – are concerned, NVIDIA did something interesting recently when it flipped the GPU around. They turned it from an high-res output device into something that, combined with deep learning and modern AI developments, can take visual information in, allowing digital systems to perceive and understand the world around them. This new trait could come in real handy for stuff like robots and self-driving cars.

So, Volvo, Autoliv, and NVIDIA will work together with Zenuity (a newly-formed joint venture for Volvo and Autoliv) to advance self-driving car tech. Volvo says they will have Level 4 autonomous cars for sale by 2021. Volvo & c. will use NVIDIA’s Artificial Intelligence platform as the underpinning for their software development. Volvo, Autoliv, Zenuity, and NVIDIA will be working to develop systems that utilize deep learning (a subset of artificial intelligence) to do things like recognize objects in the environment, anticipate potential threats, and navigate safely around obstacles, including pedestrians.

The system can compare real-time situational awareness with a high-definition map of known streets and the general environment. This would enable a car to plan a safe route and drive accurately along it and adjust to changing circumstances. The system would also perform other analytical functions such as stitching camera inputs together to create a complete surround-view of the car. Zenuity will be the outfit responsible for the self-driving software; Autoliv will then be able to sell this software to OEMs, since they have established sales, marketing, and distribution networks already in place. Smart, no?

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Photo: Volvo Car Group.

Acceptance & Application

Honestly, self-driving cars don’t bother me, as a sports car owning gearhead, all that much. Would I seek out and buy a self-driving car because of that feature? Probably not. It might be handy, but overall it doesn’t interest me too much. Now, a self-driving RV, that would be cool. Sure, like any oil-soaked gearhead out there, I have a reflexive dislike of RVs, but imagine this scenario: I’ve got tickets to a race at Sears Point in Sonoma. All I got to do is hop in my (rented) self-driving RV, call up my destination on a map, and hit the “go” button. Whoosh! Off goes the RV with me in it. Lounging in the back. Making a sandwich. Working on that latest article I’m on deadline for and management is getting anxious about. See? A self-driving RV could come in real handy in a situation like that. Volvo should partner with Winnebago or Airstream and make that happen. That would be cool.

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.

Photos & Source: Volvo Car Group.