There’s not been a lot of good news about the car industry lately, as manufacturer after manufacturer gets dragged into the aftermath of Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal. But today’s there’s a ray of sunshine from Volvo.
It might not be the first brand that springs to mind when you think about sexy, disruptive innovators. But the safety-conscious Swedish manufacturer is taking the fight to Silicon Valley’s tech giants with plans to test as many as 100 semi-autonomous cars on the streets of Britain as soon as next year.
Cars in its ‘Drive Me London’ programme will be capable of plotting their own course and avoiding collisions on motorways and A roads, allowing their drivers to ‘drop out of the loop’ for certain sections of their journey. That’s not quite the same as being fully autonomous but is seen as a necessary step in the development of driverless cars – especially while there are still non-autonomous cars on the road.
‘Autonomous driving (AD) represents a leap forward in car safety,’ said Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo's president and chief executive. ‘The sooner AD cars are on the roads, the sooner lives will start being saved.’ Volvo hopes that by 2020 its cars will be so safe that nobody will ever die inside one as the result of an accident.
The company will also be testing on the streets of Gothenburg and across China. The trials will involve real families rather than just engineers, in the hope of gleaning some real-world info about how people will react to being driven around by a robot.
Of course Volvo is far from alone in developing driverless cars. What once seemed like a pie in the sky idea pursued primarily by the likes of Google is now being taken seriously by most major car makers and has also attracted support from governments around the world. In March the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced plans to allow testing on motorways from next year, with the expectation that they will be allowed for consumer use by 2020.
The market is estimated to be worth £900bn by 2025 but the question on most peoples’ minds is how that pie will be divided up. Google has stolen a march in developing driverless technology but has no experience of actually making and selling cars. Elon Musks’s electric-powered Teslas already have a degree of autonomy. And Apple’s highly anticipated, if not officially confirmed, ‘iCar’ is sure to turn a few heads - even if its price tag is likely to make it prohibitively expensive for most.
This could be a big threat to the traditional players in the auto industry. But as these efforts by Volvo and others demonstrate, they are far from asleep at the wheel.