The Volvo brand is known to put safety central to everything it does. The company recently announced that it will equip its next-generation vehicles with lidar, an expensive sensor that has almost entirely been reserved for fleet-based ‘robotaxis’ — rather than passenger cars. Indeed Tesla has rejected lidar entirely in favour of other sensor types.
But Volvo believes lidar’s robust capabilities can be applied to millions of vehicles for hands-off motorway driving.
Volvo says it will offer “Highway Pilot” on its Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2), which will underpin the XC40 Recharge and Polestar 3 SUV. It will also be offered in the next-generation XC90 SUV, which has a plug-in hybrid option.
In 2018, Volvo invested in Luminar, one of nearly 200 lidar companies that emerged in recent years. Volvo will rely on Luminar, which focuses on long-distance vision, for its lidar technology. Long-distance perception is usually provided by radar, but lidar’s capability provides more detail about highway road conditions.
Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars, said:
Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so. At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving, and you can relax, take your eyes off the road, and your hands off the wheel.
The big challenge with lidar is cost. But Volvo believes that putting lidar in personal vehicles will help amortize the cost. Volvo has a long tradition of pioneering safety equipment well ahead of the competition. It introduced the three-point safety belt in 1959.
Level 3 autonomy, in which drivers can take their attention away from the road, has proven elusive. This week, Audi announced giving up on putting hands-free self-driving technology on its next flagship A8 sedan.
Henrik Green, Volvo’s chief technology officer, said:
We are saying that for a particular stretch of highway, we are aiming for an unsupervised experience. Our view is that by isolating the domain to particular sets of highways, which we can control and verify, we believe that’s the safe entry into autonomous technology and autonomous experience for users.
In other words, Level 3 for all kinds of conditions — from cities to country lanes to motorways — is taking on too much. Volvo plans to smartly combine a specific, relatively predictable domain, motorways, and capable lidar technology.