We test drive Volvo's self-driving car

It's the future of motoring – and we've gone behind the wheel. Find out what it's like to take the self-driving car for a spin…
Volvo self-driving car

If you were from Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, you’d know Stora Holm.

It’s where you came for skid training when you learned to drive. Today, it’s where we’re finding out why driving lessons might become a thing of the past – especially if you’re getting a Volvo. Gothenburg’s famous car maker is showing off its vision for tomorrow’s roads – the self-driving car.

But this isn’t like Google’s pie-in-the-sky driverless cars, whose near future on public roads is limited by understandably sceptical lawmakers. Volvo’s first iteration of the self-driving car will hit the streets late next year, when it introduces its 2014 edition of the XC90.

What the… ?

Volvo self-driving car

Yep, from the end of next year, Volvo’s XC90 will “assist” the driver. And by “assist”, we mean “accelerate, brake and steer.” Or, to boil it down to its essence, “drive.” Before the decade is out your car should be able to pootle about on its own while you’re supping a cappucino or watching a movie. But in the short term, it’ll chauffeur you around while you look out the window.

The test drive

If you’ve driven a new, high-end automatic in the past few years, you’ll be aware of adaptive cruise control – a feature that automatically adjusts your car’s speed to that of the car in front. You simply set the upper limit, take your feet off the pedals and steer.

Volvo is adding Steer Assist which – as the name suggests – does the steering for you, too. So, you sit in the driving seat, set the car to follow the one in front and it does. The feature is built with traffic jams in mind, not motorway cruising, but even at relatively slow speeds it’s a thrilling ride.

I can't wait...

Most car reviews will blind you with numbers – top speed, brake horsepower, torque, gear ratios – and perhaps add a few details about the driving position or how easy it is to get your golf clubs into the boot. Not this one though, because you only need to know one thing about this car: it drives itself.

That ought to be terrifying (even I can’t put 100 per cent of my trust in a prototype), but the reality is that computers are already better drivers than people. As a footwell-stamping, breath-intaking backseat driver of some repute, I’ve rarely felt more at ease with someone (well, something) else at the wheel. A high-octane hot lap with a trained racing driver can be great fun, but I know who I'd rather drove me to work in the morning. Thankfully, I don’t have long to wait.

fear factor

It’s pretty eerie watching a computer driving a car for you – with a camera and radar as its eyes and ears – but you can take back control at any time. The car will always listen to the human first and its own systems second. Until you put it in danger, that is, but we’ll come to that…

Put away your visions of driverless cars menacing the streets. That’s later (yes, really, we’ll come to that, too). But should you want to send a text or retrieve your child’s banana from the footwell, you can. We don’t recommend it, but it’s totally possible. And much safer that doing it in a car that isn’t driving itself, which plenty of people do already.

How the…?

Volvo self-driving car
Volvo self-driving car

As we’ve said, it’s a natty system of sensors and computing that lets the car drive itself, but Volvo’s particular expertise stems from research done for the EU’s successful Sartre Project for road trains – strings of autonomous cars on motorways that can create virtually-coupled locomotives of any length. So, you can manually steer off course and the car will bring itself back into line, but when the car in front pulls into the next lane, the lane recognition kicks in and stops you drifting across the road. Thankfully.

Sadly – for you, but not for fellow road users – Volvo’s production 2014 XC90 won’t let you drive with your hands off the wheel. It’ll help you steer if you stop paying attention (even with Steer Assist off, it’ll gently bring you away from road edges and barriers if it thinks you’re about to have an accident) and it’ll slam the brakes on if it thinks you’re about to hit a pedestrian (even in the dark), a large animal or another car.

Why the… ?

Being Volvo, the buzzword is safety (it’s actually “Intellisafe”, but we’ll leave that one in the corporate handbook). The company envisages a near accident-free future, claiming that no new Volvo cars will be responsible for deaths or serious injuries from 2020 onwards. Those are strong words – but with 1.3 million people dying on the world’s roads every year, mostly owing to human error – they’re softly spoken.

Whatever next?

Volvo self-driving car

Pseudo self-driving cars will be here in 2014. But truly autonomous cars – ones that drive themselves without human supervision – are coming this decade. They’ll find their own parking spaces, pick you up in town and talk to the world around them. We’ve seen that future too, but that’s a story for another day…