'Drive Me London' will test Volvo's driverless cars in heavy congestion

Tests conducted in London – one of the busiest cities in the world – are expected to provide Volvo with valuable data to improve its driverless cars. 

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

Get ready Londoners, self-driving Volvos are coming.

The Swedish carmaker will launch its "Drive Me London" tests starting early 2017, coinciding with similar tests to take place in China as well as in Volvo’s home city of Gothenburg, Sweden. "Drive Me London" is motivated in part by Britain’s interest in being at the forefront of autonomous technology. George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has promised to introduce legislation that will allow autonomous vehicles on British motorways by 2020, the Financial Times reported. 

But that isn’t the only reason London makes a good proving ground for the carmaker. As one of the largest and busiest cities in the world, London offers Volvo an opportunity to test its self-driving cars in a unique traffic system.

"We realize that customers and traffic are very different around the world, so we think it's important to test in different environments to be prepared for the future, and London is a very, very large city where people spend lots of time in traffic jams, so we think it's an ideal place to continue learning,” Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader for safety and driver support technologies at Volvo, told ZDNet

In partnership with Thatcham Research, a not-for-profit British firm that specializes in vehicle safety technology, vehicle security, and crash repair, Volvo will employ real families in these tests, first with a smaller number of self-driving cars, but increasing to 100 cars by 2018, which will make it the largest autonomous driving program on British streets.

The company says it is currently scouting for suitable locations. The aim is to test the cars on public roads and to emulate real commuting situations, as Volvo hopes to collect data that will help it to further develop its technology. The cars will be unsupervised on certain roads, allowing the drivers to sit back, perhaps even reading a book or watching a movie. On certain parts of the journey, the cars may not be able to self-drive, requiring the driver to take control of the wheel.

Volvo officials have said that they believe the self-driving cars will help ease congestion and reduce pollution, as well as decreasing the number of accidents. Because up to 90 percent of car accidents are presently caused by driver error, some independent research indicates that self-driving cars will reduce the frequency of those accidents. Volvo’s goal is to make "deathproof" self-driving cars by 2020.

Autonomous driving represents a leap forward in car safety,” Håkan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo, told the Financial Times. “The sooner autonomous driving cars are on the roads, the sooner lives will start being saved.”

Tests involving self-driving cars have already been conducted in Milton Keynes, Coventry, and Bristol, but Volvo’s would be the first to use real families on public roads. The UK-based automaker Jaguar Land Rover is set to test similar technology later this year, the International Business Times reported.

Carmakers and tech companies in the self-driving market aim to develop fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. For that to happen, however, more governments will need to pass legislation that will clear a path for such technology. This week, Volvo partnered with Ford and Google, as well as ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, to form a coalition that seeks to lobby for government legislation that will see the goal realized.

“There are multiple benefits to autonomous driving cars,” Mr. Samuelsson told Fortune. “That is why governments globally need to put in place the legislation and infrastructure to allow AD cars onto the streets as soon as possible. The car industry cannot do it all by itself. We need government help.

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