A pair of new-generation Volvo XC90 SUVs were driven hands-free in Adelaide this week, marking an official first for driverless technology in the southern hemisphere.
Although similar technology is now featured with Tesla’s Model S and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Volvo’s hands-off operation of its specially tweaked XC90s was thanks specifically to government cooperation - and the loan of one of its own technology experts, Dr Trent Victor, sent directly from its Sweden headquarters.
Among the features tested were versions of existing systems, including automatic lane keeping, adaptive cruise control and active queue assist, with special software tweaks making each a little more readily adapted to an entirely hands-free operation, with steering, braking and acceleration all managed by the vehicle's systems. Queue assist, for example, is normally only able to operate in slow-moving traffic at speeds below 30km/h.
The vehicles were limited to 70km/h - a condition set for the demonstration by Volvo directly - and another standard-fit XC90 acted as a 'pace car' to assist in the demonstration.
The demonstration was the centrepiece of the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), held this past weekend on a closed stretch of Adelaide’s Southern Expressway.
Organised by independent research organisation ARRB Group, in partnership with the South Australian government, the demonstration was designed to bring a local focus to the rapid progress of autonomous vehicle technology in Europe, Japan, the US and other regions.
“We brought together a range of industry, government and academic partners from around the world and closer to home, and particularly appreciate the efforts and involvement of the South Australian Government and Volvo to make this happen,” ARRB Group Managing Director, Gerard Waldron, said.
Speaking with CarAdvice at the ADVI event, Waldron said that it is crucial to bring driverless technology into the local picture sooner rather than later.
“If Australia doesn’t get into this soon, the car companies will go off and develop these vehicles for the European and American markets and they won’t take account of ours, not initially,” he said.
“The South Australian government is really to be congratulated for taking the lead in this, because the fact that we’re able to do this demonstration is because they’ve gone out of their way to make it happen.
“The legislation is going into parliament here in South Australia now, and that will allow future trials to actually mix with live traffic on open roads. These are the sorts of steps that are needed.”
Although the South Australian government has played a key role in making the southern hemisphere’s first driverless vehicle tests happen, Waldron says it was “a lonely road” for ARRB initially.
“We’ll be an overnight success… after about three years,” he joked. “But no, we’re a very well connected international research organisation, and I have colleagues and peers working in all manner of transport and road-related research, so we’ve been very aware of what’s been brewing elsewhere.”
Above: Dr Trent Victor.
Waldron said the results of that local push are already being shown. “Volvo, for example, has taken this car to collect data on the movement of Kangaroos. And, it sort of sounds trite, but it’s one of those areas where we’re doing something differently to the rest of the world and it means the vehicles will be more adapted to local needs when they arrive.”
The benefits promised by the introduction of self-driving vehicles, he said, “are so enormous that society is going to want to get those advantages”.
Waldron has previously said that adopting driverless vehicles could reduce Australia’s $27 billion annual road trauma bill by a massive 90 percent, but there’s more appeal in autonomous cars than that alone.
“There’s a whole generation coming through now that isn’t even bothering to get their driver’s licence - it’s something like a 30 percent drop in 20 to 24 year olds getting their licences. And perversely, there’s still something like 90 percent of 80 year-olds have got driver licences.”
Above, L-R: Volvo's Kevin McCann, ARRB's Gerard Waldron, South Australian premier Jay Weatherill.
Volvo Cars Australia managing director Kevin McCann echoed those sentiments, noting that many motorists simply see cars as a means of getting about.
"The fact is, so many people in the population, they really only see cars as a means of getting from A to B, and they want to do that safely and comfortably," he said.
"The car as a leisure object is less a factor in daily use that simply commuting is,” he said.