Volvo rising to the challenge posed by autonomous driving

The Swedish carmaker is gambling its future as auto industry enters crucial phase

Uber’s Volvo XC90 self-driving car is shown during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

Uber’s Volvo XC90 self-driving car is shown during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

 

The automotive world gathered in Paris last week. On Thursday the motoring bosses addressed the media on the great advances they have made, the ongoing sales growth and plans for the next decade.

Yet for the media and industry alike, the focus was not on the new models being launched but on how the established brands are preparing to tackle the massive tech revolution underway in the sector.

The rapid arrival of autonomous driving technology is converging with developments in alternative energy sources aiming to make the combustion engine redundant.

For the automotive giants the investments will prove costly, but given the auto industry is the biggest spender on R&D it is within reach. For smaller brands, such as Volvo, the disruption means an enormous gamble: take a wrong turn in your tech choices and it could mean the end of the road for the brand.

As Volvo’s chief of research and development, Dr Peter Mertens has some seemingly monumental challenges ahead. First he must lead the Swedish brand into the autonomous age. He must also deliver the most advanced powertrain options during a time when no one is certain whether electric, fuel cell or a variation on the combustion engine is going to be the future.

Mertens must do all this in the face of increasing rivalry from the bigger budgets of rival car giants and newcomers like the tech giants, eagerly encroaching into the motoring world.

Volvo’s latest XC90 boasts a litany of safety features, including a driver assist system that takes over acceleration, steering and braking under most normal driving conditions, including city centre traffic. In reality, having tested the system in real-life road conditions, it is very much in its infancy and has very limited ability, requiring the driver to take over at regular intervals, but it’s not hard to foresee major improvements that will herald autonomous Volvos in the next few decades.

Uber trials

Volvo is taking the XC90 one step further as well. As part of trials in the US with taxi service Uber, the firm will soon be introducing a few fully autonomous versions of the seven-seat SUV. These are being purpose built as part of another joint venture the car firm has with tech firm Autoliv.

The aim is to participate in public trials in Pittsburgh, which started last week by Uber with a fleet of specially adapted Ford Fusions.

Mertens says he can’t talk in detail about the Uber trials, but Volvo has produced the first car and it’s going to be on European roads some time.

“It will be quite some time before we see this available to the public. It’s a groundbreaking development and we are actually in uncharted territory. There is a lot of development ongoing and we’ll have to see.”

Up against the big guns, Volvo is a minnow. Doesn’t size matter when you are talking about major revolutions such as the electrification of the motoring world and autonomous driving?

“Yes absolutely size matters. And this is probably the only time this is true: the smaller the better. This is not about ‘do I have layers of management and thousands of people in different structures’, this is about being fast and being in a completely different environment than traditional automakers and I don’t even consider us as being a traditional auto maker.

“This is one of the breakthroughs and one of the ideas that is increasingly evident on the back of these joint ventures. We get away from the traditional layers and structures and stuff and instead have people working in ways that are absolutely normal in Silicon Valley. Why shouldn’t it be normal with us? That’s the idea.”

Haptic technology

At the Frankfurt motor show last year, Bosch showcased haptic technology for in-car touchscreen systems. These offered a variety of sensory feels, the most impressive was a series of touchscreen buttons that felt like you were touching corduroy material, with every second button feeling like the thick ridges were running vertical or parallel.

The beauty of the system is that your typical touchscreen device offers multiple screens to replace the plethora of buttons on older cars, but you retain the sensory touch of a button. That’s useful in a car when you may want to keep your eyes on the road while changing radio station or the like. However, Mertens reckons such systems will not be available in production cars for a couple of years.

“When we designed our current touchscreen system – a large iPad-like control screen in the centre console of its latest models – we looked very closely at haptic technology. It wasn’t viable.”

Asked about the Bosch demonstration at Frankfurt he says it is one thing to produce a one-off demonstration version and another to produce a system for market. “Let’s see: I looked into it very deeply a couple of years ago and it could be the technology has gone really, really quickly recently but I doubt it.”

Safety technology

Volvo has rolled out new safety technology on its new V90 Cross Country estate. The car’s sensors can detect a slippery road and sends a message to the cloud and Volvo’s system will then notify other cars within a certain range. It will start operations in Sweden and Norway in November and then will roll out to other markets.

This is not the same car-to-car communication protocol being assessed by other European brands. That one, known as P11, is a direct car-to-car communication system bypassing the cloud.

“We don’t really believe in that so much. It is driven by regulations in the US and frankly speaking, whether that is good or bad or will happen or not I really don’t know yet whether it will be decided on. But if so we will be ready. Right now we are doing a different thing. We actually take information from the car and put it through the cloud and then sort out who could make use of that and then distribute it to the others.”

Yet the cloud protocol being used by the German brands, which combined produce three million cars a year, will have a much wider reach. Why should Volvo do their own thing?

“It’s not so much willingness about co-operation; we think this is a better solution using the cloud rather than stupid car-to-car communication which limits you in a way as to what you can communicate and what you can filter. I am not against car-to-car stuff and again there is some work globally on standardisation. I’m not saying we are going to stay out of that forever but we do what we think is the most pragmatic and the quickest way to saving lives. Even though we are very small we can adapt quite quickly.”

Mertens seems enthused about the challenges ahead and members of his team speak of the excitement of working in such a fast-paced tech environment where an industry that has been gradually evolving for a century is in the midst of such seismic change.

For all the bright lights and ambitious promises at the Paris show, there is no question the auto industry is at the dawn of a major disruption. The vehicles on display – and the brands displaying them – are likely to be very different when the Paris auto salon 2026 opens its doors.

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