No longer an element of science fiction or a fantasy of frustrated commuters, autonomous vehicle technology will soon be available for the masses. Volvo has announced that it plans to equip its next-generation models with self-driving technology starting in 2014.
Dubbed Traffic Jam Assistance, Volvo’s system is designed for low-speed traffic situations. It will enable driverless operation – with the car controlling the steering, throttle and brakes – at speeds up to 31 mph. The system is activated at the push of a button, and drivers can retake control of the car at any time by making a control input.
"This technology makes driving more relaxed in the kind of monotonous queuing that is a less attractive part of daily driving in urban areas. It offers you a safe, effortless drive in slow traffic," said Peter Mertens, Volvo’s senior vice president of research and development.
Volvo says that Traffic Jam Assistance is an evolution of its existing radar- and camera-based technologies, including the Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keeping Aid systems. While the automaker has not officially announced where it will offer Traffic Jam Assistance, it’s highly likely that the setup will be available in the United States.
Though Google and a number of automakers have been hard at work developing and testing self-driving systems in recent years, it seems that Volvo will beat them all to the autonomous technology punch. However, unlike Google’s more complex autonomous system, Traffic Jam Assistance cannot read signs or recognize stoplights.
The system’s speed restriction also limits its usefulness, although Volvo has conducted extensive self-driving tech testing at highway velocities as part of the SARTRE autonomous road train project, suggesting a high-velocity version could come at some point in the future.
Laws and regulations will be a potential roadblock for Volvo and other companies looking to sell self-driving vehicles. While several states, including California, Nevada and Florida, have provisions that permit autonomous cars to operate on public roads, the federal government is just beginning a multi-year study designed to research standards and regulations for the vehicles. Depending on what federal laws end up being implemented, Volvo could be forced to redesign its system to ensure compliance.