Volvo announced this morning that it's about to let 100 real, actual, normal members of the public sit behind the wheel of new XC90s — and not drive them. That's because these cars are completely autonomous, and only in the virtual hands of the inept and mechanical-ham-fisted public can robo-cars truly be tested.
What makes this huge news is not only that this is (I think) the first time self-driving cars will be distributed among the public, but also because the cars should appear, for all intents and purposes, like regular cars from the outside, and have the ability to switch between autonomous and driver-operated modes.
However, because Volvo's Drive Me test program is with the public, let me tamper your expectations a bit. This is still very much an experiment, so there are some restrictions in place. The 100 members of the public will be chosen from in and around Volvo's homebase of Gothenburg, Sweden. Furthermore, it doesn't sound as if the cars will be fully autonomous all the time, and only switching to driver control when the driver demands it. The autonomy is granted by a system consisting of lots of cameras, radar sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and laser sensors, along with a cloud system hooked up to a technical center staffed with real people to monitor traffic conditions. When the system feels like autonomous driving isn't safe, such as in snow or heavy rain, it'll force you to take control.
And furthermore, you'll be restricted in where you can let the roboVolvo drive, as Volvo's Director of Government Affairs Karl-Johan Runnberg explains:
To start with we foresee autonomous drive will be available in controlled areas, for example on roads with no unprotected road users and no oncoming traffic. Motorways are a good type of roads to start with the implementation of autonomous drive.
So there's that. You can let your Volvo drive you anywhere, as long as you're basically on a clear highway with a nice thick median, and within a 50 kilometer stretch of a designated route. And also, the roboVolvo will be able to avoid big things in the road, like a tire, for now, but isn't yet able to avoid potholes. So there's that, too.
BUT! Volvo does say it has been testing the system using its own engineers in all sorts of places, and the restrictions are really just for the public test.
The 100 self-driving XC90s will hit the Swedish roads in 2017, and the company anticipates that the program will quickly be rolled out to other European cities for testing before what sounds like an optimistic production date of 2020.