Up until now, mainstream manufacturers — Ford, Mercedes and Audi, among others — have been developing fully autonomous driving systems for their cars in relatively isolated environments, like private test tracks or controlled situations. Volvo, on the other hand, is taking it one step further with the announcement that the company would be developing their AD (autonomous driving) program, called Drive Me, with 100 XC90 prototypes on the very real streets of Gothenburg, Sweden. The guinea pigs of the Drive Me program are 100 Volvo customers who will use their XC90 AD prototypes for daily driving throughout 2017 just as they would regular cars. This is the biggest step towards autonomous driving phasing into the mass market since Tesla debuted its Autopilot system.
The difference between what Tesla has achieved with Autopilot and what Volvo is looking to do with Drive Me is that Tesla is working with a much smaller production scale, and with a car that was always intended to harbor integrated AD technology. Volvo is also working with production numbers five times that of Tesla’s (which is still extremely low, compared to brands like Ford and Mercedes), effectively looking to retrofit the technology to their existing line and then implement it by 2021. This is significant because all the manufacturers developing AD (barring Tesla) are working with their own existing architecture, they’ll be doing the same.
As we saw at CES, LiDar systems and 3D mapping computers are becoming more readily available to the private sector, which will likely drive up development speed and scope. (Outsourcing makes things happen fast.) Think of autonomous driving as a massive jigsaw puzzle. Rather than on your own, it’s faster to solve the puzzle with the help of 10–20 friends. Volvo is working with Uber to help develop the hardware and Swedish firm Autoliv (with whom the company has also formed a joint venture named Zenuity) for the software to license and sell it to other car manufacturers or private firms. Since Volvo is developing the software in real-world driving situations, with regular families, the buyers of that software will already have an incredible platform to build on.
These past couple weeks, manufacturers working on the AD puzzle have all seemed to set targets for full implementation of autonomous features in their cars some time by 2019–2021. So it’s clear the question is no longer if it will happen, but how each manufacturer will bring autonomy to nearly ready table.