Self-driving tech will make Volvos even safer, r&d boss says

Peter Mertens: “Our heritage is safety, and it will always be.”
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As self-driving cars become increasingly important, Volvo has unveiled an ambitious plan to position itself at the forefront of this cutting-edge technology. Volvo, Nissan, Ford, Tesla and Mercedes-Benz already offer autonomous driving features or promise to do so soon.

What separates Volvo is that while some rivals talk about self-driving in terms of the "wow" factor, Volvo wants it be a cornerstone of its efforts to produce the safest cars on the road.

Volvo r&d chief Peter Mertens explained why in an interview with Jennifer Clark, correspondent for Automotive News Europe.

Q: How will Volvo become the autonomous driving leader?

A: We want to continue to be in the lead by investing a lot of money, like in our "Drive Me" program. We've started testing what will become 100 completely self-driving cars on roads in and around Gothenburg, Sweden. I want to test real cars in real traffic, with real customers. We will collect miles of experience in real traffic. We can use that to learn and make the algorithm more robust, make it detect situations better than before and get feedback from customers.

Where is Volvo now with its self-driving car technology?

We've introduced City Safety in all our cars, and statistics show that rear crashes [caused by Volvo vehicles] have been reduced by 30 percent. Insurance premiums are lower, too. It's an automatic braking technology that recognizes when you get too close to the car in front of you and at low speeds brakes for you.

The new XC90's so-called traffic-jam assist is the next big step for self-driving cars at Volvo. How does it work?

It helps you follow the car in front of you and make latitudinal and longitudinal moves. It is completely self-driven during a traffic jam. But since it is impossible now to completely monitor the whole world around you, the driver needs to be in the loop. If something unexpected in the system happens, the driver will naturally take over.

Do those technologies boost the brand?

Our heritage is safety, and it will always be. That's why we are putting so much effort in autonomous driving -- to protect our position of being the safest brand. And you see tremendous sales growth and recognition of the brand after it was bought by a Chinese owner. You see that in our volumes. Our growth rate is mind-blowing in China -- but also in Europe. And that is because people know what they get.

What's the next step for self-driving cars?

The biggest step is making the system more intelligent. We look at technology and say 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. It would be fantastic if a system could learn from you about what you have done to prevent an accident. That will be the breakthrough for the technology, when we are able to learn from experience. Right now, there is no computer or sensor that can model the world. And we humans can't either. We learn from experience. Let the system learn from your experience.

Are the toughest challenges regulatory or technological?

Both. It is difficult if we have different regulations in different countries. If we have to do systems different in China, the EU or the U.S. -- or maybe even every U.S. state has its own regulations -- it's not going to work. It kills the business. And the automotive business needs to stand together, to lobby for one set of rules around the world. I doubt it's going to happen, but there is always hope.

Volvo's new Scalable Product Architecture has been developed to accommodate autono-mous cars. What does it involve?

Your electric architecture has to be able to cope with information coming from sensors. So it needs to be a high-speed electric architecture. It needs to have its own domain. It will take some time.

What does Volvo think about a driver reading the newspaper while traveling to work?

For us, the point is that for the foreseeable future the driver needs to be in the loop. We want to support him or her with the absolute maximum that the technology can deliver, but we won't want them being drunk, or reading the newspaper or doing stuff which completely distracts from what's happening in traffic. There are still things that computers can't deal with.

Do people trust technology too much?

I am an old motorhead, so maybe I am too conservative, but I don't think autonomous driving is going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years. That's not a big deal. People enjoy driving. They hate to drive in traffic jams. And we should protect them in situations that are really boring and become dangerous because you are not concentrating. But we shouldn't take away the fun, and we shouldn't pretend we'll have everything fixed tomorrow.

Where does Volvo stand on the issue of ownership of data collected in cars?

For us it's very clear, data belongs to the owner. The owner of the data is the driver, nobody else. Whether everyone sees that or not, I can't comment on that. We don't want to have stuff happening on our systems that we don't have under our control. We have cooperation with Google and with Apple for our entertainment systems. But it's our car and our customer.

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