Why is Volvo testing 100 driverless cars on the congested roads of China?

The Swedish carmaker says it is looking for challenging conditions to test its new driverless car.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Volvo S90 is displayed at a panel discussion about self-driving cars at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China.

Can self-autonomous cars make busy roads safer? Volvo says yes.

And what a better place to test than China? The Swedish automaker aims to deploy up to 100 of its self-driving cars for an experiment on Chinese roads, taking advantage of the Chinese government pledge to embrace the advancing technology of self-autonomous cars, Reuters reported.

China has some of the world’s most congested cities and roads, creating difficult conditions for drivers. But that is exactly why the country is suitable, says Volvo, as the roads will provide the most challenging conditions for the experiment. By conducting the experiment on these crowded roads, the company says it hopes to ascertain how driverless cars can improve public safety and make driving less stressful.   

"If you look at the road transportation network in China, it's obvious that it has a huge problem, traffic safety is a very big issue there,” said Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader for safety and driver support technologies at Volvo, ZDNet reported. “People spend huge amounts of time in traffic jams, so when you look at the problems that you see on Chinese roads and the potential that self-driving cars have, it's a perfect match," says Coelingh.

"We've all seen the really exciting developments in the technology, but what we're trying to do is to really understand how this can bring an impact to society, as well as to our customers," he added

The driverless cars will resemble normal cars with steering wheels. They will alert drivers when autopilot mode can be activated, in areas such as parks and gated neighborhoods. Volvo says it plans to employ local drivers who will conduct the experiment on public roads in everyday conditions.

The experiment won’t start until 2017, and Volvo didn’t provide the exact details of the dates when the experiment will be launched. The company is currently scouting for suitable cities, seeking out those that have the infrastructure it deems suitable. If the experiment succeeds, the company says, it will pave a way to a future where passengers can sit relaxed in the back of their vehicles – and even read or watch TV, the company says.

"We're providing technology which allows you do something else behind the steering wheel, which means the technology itself needs to be very, very robust, the car needs to be able to deal with all potential traffic scenarios," said Coelingh, according to ZDNet.

And in case there’s any problem, “the car can bring itself to a safe stop,” Coelingh says. He adds that, “If you don't have that, you can't promise customers that they can do something else behind the steering wheel," ZDNet reported.

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