Volvo to sell self driving cars to private owners

  • May 13, 2020
  • William Payne

Volvo Cars has announced plans to sell self driving cars from 2022. The company intends to sell the cars direct to private owners – a departure from the industry norm of developing self driving vehicles as hire cars. Volvo says that its cars’ self driving will be restricted to highways, but the cars will drive themselves without human intervention when in use. Volvo’s move to sell direct to private owners results from it having found a Lidar maker, Luminar, that can supply the systems for a fraction of the normal industry cost. 

The company is aiming to address two challenges implicit in making self driving technology mainstream: developing a sustainable business model for car makers; and getting car users, whether rental or private owners, to accept and trust the new technology. 

By sourcing Lidars from Luminar, Volvo believes that it can reduce the cost of self driving technology to make it affordable for consumers. Most self driving cars are saddled with the cost of Lidar systems, which cost on average around $72,000 each. The high cost of Lidar has forced car makers to explore new mass market car ownership models, such as rental and car hire. Volvo believes that sourcing low cost Lidar will help it avoid having to develop new models of car ownership, with all the business risks and uncertainty that entails.

Another barrier to market adoption is the high cost of developing and endlessly testing general self driving AI models to ensure rigorous safety. At the same time, there is general uncertainty among consumers as to whether they would be confident using self driving technology.

Volvo addresses both consumer uncertainty towards self driving technology, and the cost and time involved in developing and testing general self driving AI, by restricting their AI self driving to highways. 

By restricting its cars self driving to highways for the present, Volvo can cut short testing of self driving AI. The AI model for highway self driving is much simpler, and easier to prove through testing, than general self driving AI models which have to deal with far more complex scenarios, such as high streets with cars parking, road intersections, pedestrians and cyclists. 

Highway only self driving also addresses consumer confidence in self driving tech. Consumers already use ADAS on highways. Replacing ADAS with Lidar based self driving AI is a progressive step that many consumers will be willing to make. Their confidence will also be boosted by public assurances from regulators that highway self driving AI is verifiably safe, an assurance that is far more difficult to provide general self driving AI. And highway-only self driving AI will cost less to develop and test, and will result in cheaper, more consumer affordable cars.

To make all this happen, Volvo is partnering Florida Luminar, and Volvo’s next generation SPA 2 modular vehicle architecture will be available as hardware-ready for autonomous drive from production start in 2022, with the Luminar LiDAR integrated into the roof.

Volvo says that cars based on SPA 2 will be updated with software over the air and if customers decide to opt for it, the Highway Pilot feature that enables fully autonomous highway driving will be activated once it is verified to be safe for individual geographic locations and conditions.

“Autonomous drive has the potential to be one of the most lifesaving technologies in history, if introduced responsibly and safely,” said Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars. “Providing our future cars with the vision they require to make safe decisions is an important step in that direction.”

In addition to the Highway Pilot feature, Volvo Cars and Luminar are also exploring LiDAR’s role in improving future advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), with the potential for equipping all future SPA2-based cars with a LiDAR sensor as standard.

To enable the Highway Pilot feature, Luminar’s perception technology will be combined with autonomous drive software and the cameras, radars and back-up systems for functions such as steering, braking and battery power installed on forthcoming Volvo cars equipped for self-driving. Put together, this gives Volvo users who want it access to a safe, fully self-driving feature for use on highways.

“Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so,” said Henrik Green. “At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel. Over time, updates over the air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”

Volvo Cars and Luminar are also working to ensure “robust industrialisation and validation” of Luminar’s LiDAR technology for series production. Volvo Cars has also signed an agreement to possibly increase its minority stake in Luminar.

“Volvo is recognised as the pioneer of automotive safety, having driven standardisation across the industry for the most advanced life-saving technologies,” said Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar. “The next era of safety lies within autonomous driving and once again, Volvo has taken the lead with a major industry milestone. We’ve solved the key cost, performance, and auto-grade challenges to make series production possible, and alongside Volvo are making the technology available to the world.”