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Volvo traffic jam assistance brings self-driving cars one step closer

Volvo traffic jam assistance to debut in 2014Google isn’t the only corporation trying to pitch self-driving cars to the average commuter. Volvo plans to introduce a car that can drive itself through a traffic jam in 2014. What the company calls “traffic jam assistance” will allow a car to automatically follow the vehicle in front at low speeds.

Traffic jam assistance is an outgrowth of Volvo’s Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keep Aid Technology. Both systems allow a car to act on its own in limited circumstances, but traffic jam assistance will give the machine more control.

Like Adaptive Cruise Control, traffic jam assistance maintains a set distance from the car in front. However, the new system works at slower speeds (under 31 mph). When the system is used, a car can accelerate, steer, and brake itself without any driver involvement.

The system, which is activated with the push of a button, might inspire thoughts of Christine, or KITT’s evil twin, KARR. Volvo says this new technology is just here to help.

“The car follows the vehicle in front in the same lane. However, it is always the driver who is in charge. He or she can take back control of the car at any time,” Volvo senior vice president, research and development Peter Mertens said in a statement.

Mertens says the purpose of traffic jam assistance is not to take away driving pleasure, but to make driving more enjoyable for people who spend most of their time creeping along on a daily commute.

“This technology makes driving more relaxed in the kind of monotonous queuing that is a less attractive part of daily driving in urban areas. It offers you a safe, effortless drive in slow traffic,” he said.

However, Volvo wants to do more than allow commuters to play Fruit Ninja while driving. The Swedish carmaker has been testing autonomous vehicles in other situations. Its SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project involved “platooning” cars in tight formation at 56 mph. Volvo was also the first to sell a car with automatic braking, as part of its City Safety package.

“Our aim is to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving by moving beyond concepts and pioneering technologies that will reach actual customers. Making these features reliable and easy to use is crucial to boosting customer confidence in self-driving cars,” Mertens said.

Traffic jam assistance will be offered on models based on Volvo’s upcoming Scalable Product Architecture platform, and will go on sale in 2014.

Given the political dance Google has had to do to test its self-driving cars on public roads, it will be interesting to see how Volvo fairs in 2014. If the system fails and a self-driving Volvo rear ends the car in front of it, the crash wouldn’t really be the driver’s fault.

Google escaped from this legal gray area by cajoling California and Nevada into explicitly legalizing autonomous cars. Will Volvo be content to only sell traffic jam assistance in those two states, or will it begin a lobbying effort of its own?

So far, regulators have accepted adaptive cruise control and automatic braking, even though those systems take control away from the driver. Volvo’s traffic jam assistance is much more complex, though, further blurring the line between car and robot.

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