Middle Ground on Driverless Vehicles

The push by Google, among others, to prove that driverless vehicles are safe and practical won't be halted by a project named SARTRE. In fact, the project may boost the driverless technologies, even though officials at Volvo Trucks maintain a human driver is essential.

An article posted by the public relations staff of the Volvo Trucks Europe Division says driverless technology has been proven. However, "making vehicles more autonomous is perhaps not a question of excluding drivers, but rather of emphasizing their importance," the authors stated. Proponents of driverless vehicles say the technology will greatly improve safety because humans' mistakes are the chief cause of road accidents. Opponents ask whether computer systems are infallible and wonder who will be legally responsible if a driverless vehicle causes an accident.

Carl Johan Almqvist of Volvo Trucks believes combining the automated system's 360-degree awareness with the professional driver’s knowledge and experience will work best, according to the article. "We believe in the driver and appreciate that the human brain can make decisions that automatic systems struggle with," he said. "The computer never gets tired, but it can only do things for which it is programmed. As soon as you are outside of normal situations, that is where the driver's skill comes in. Drivers are often best placed to assess a situation and to choose between slowing down, panic braking, or driving round an obstacle."

The article says Volvo Trucks is working on systems to support drivers in situations where they are under-stimulated, such as when the vehicle is stopped in a traffic jam. "When you are moving slowly, your mind wanders. You aren't focused on driving, and if the car in front suddenly stops, you might hit it," Almqvist said. "These are situations where it's a good idea to support the driver."

This concept is being realized, according to Volvo, through the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project in which Volvo is participating. SARTRE is developing vehicle platooning, where a convoy has a professional driver in a lead vehicle in front of a line of other vehicles. "Each vehicle in the convoy measures the distance, speed and direction to the car in front, and adjusts accordingly. The vehicles are not physically attached to each other and can leave the procession at any time. But once in the platoon, the following drivers can relax and do other things while the platoon proceeds towards its destination under the expert guidance of the lead driver," the article states. It says platooning is expected to improve road safety, save fuel, and reduce CO2 emissions and road congestion.

The technology has been successfully tested with a single car following a lead truck.

"Safety is one of Volvo's core values, so we are investing considerable effort in automation while doing it in the safest possible way," Almqvist said. "The technology is moving quickly, but getting it to work in a safe way with a human being is our ultimate aim. You should feel as safe as you do when driving yourself, even if it is a computer that is doing the work. Today, you can push a button and fly on autopilot from when you leave the gate until your arrival at the other end. But you still have a pilot. Two, in fact."

Posted by Jerry Laws on Oct 10, 2011