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For a fatality-free future, Volvo wants you to take your hands off the wheel

The auto industry is approaching a major turning point in its existence. There have been plenty of important innovations over the past century, including the automatic transmission, ABS brakes, the gradual shift from carburetors to direct fuel injection, and the democratization of creature comforts like power windows. However, we’ve never experienced such a drastic change of direction; think of it as “Car 2.0.”

“If something really serious happens it would destroy the momentum [of self-driving cars].”

The way we drive will completely change over the next decade or so, partly because car makers need to comply with the strict fuel economy regulations that are scheduled to come into effect all over the world. These norms will affect you regardless of whether you live in the United States, in China, or in Europe.

The second major change is the arrival en masse of self-driving cars. The technology will understandably be ushered in by expensive models that wear a premium emblem on the trunk lid, but it will gradually trickle down to more affordable cars built for the average buyer.

We sat down with Volvo executives at the launch of the all-new 2017 S90 in Gothenburg, Sweden, the company’s home town, to find out how they’re preparing for the shift.

Long known as a pioneer in automotive safety, Volvo is at the forefront of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles. The company has been dabbling in high-tech safety features that give the car the power to make a decision on its own for years. The aforementioned S90 ups the ante with a new technology called Pilot Assist that allows the car to drive itself in the right conditions at speeds of up to 80 mph, a function that aims to take the inconvenience out of commuting. Additionally, it uses an array of sensors, radars, and cameras to detect large animals such as horses and elks, and it automatically hits the brakes if it senses a collision with a runaway ruminant is unavoidable.

Volvo has been relatively quiet about its autonomous program. Unlike some of its rivals (notably Audi and BMW) it’s never staged highly-publicized PR stunts, and it’s not making ambitious promises that it won’t be able to keep.  Peter Mertens, the senior vice president of Volvo’s R&D department, told Digital Trends that the low key approach is intentional.

“You can run a car autonomously around a race circuit if you digitalize every centimeter of it. It’s a no brainer, everybody can do that, but it’s not answering the questions we need to answer,” he explained.

Volvo is once again blazing its own path. It will introduce a pilot program called Drive Me in 2017 that aims to put 100 self-driving XC90s in the hands of real customers so that they can be tested in real-world conditions. The program will be held on Gothenburg’s busiest commuter routes.

Volvo’s self-driving cars are being designed with built-in back-up systems for additional peace of mind. For example, adding a secondary steering system is costly but it will allow the driver to take the wheel and safely bring the car to a stop if the primary unit fails. The steering wheel will likely require more effort to turn, but it won’t leave the driver trapped in an uncontrollable car.

Engineers firmly believe the arrival of the self-driving car will help Volvo achieve its goal of having no one killed or seriously injured in one of its new cars in 2020. However, Mertens warns that completely autonomous cars aren’t quite ready for prime time yet, and he stresses that they need to be rolled out in a careful and responsible way.

“You see OEMs offering systems that they call autonomous, but I question whether they really are. I cross my fingers that it goes alright for them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, and if something really serious happens it will destroy the momentum [of self-driving cars].”

Volvo is aggressively downsizing its engines in a bid to build cleaner and more efficient cars; in fact, it’s one of the industry leaders. The power-dense 2.0-liter four-cylinder found under the hood of the S90 and the XC90 will soon be joined by a turbocharged three-cylinder mill that’s scheduled to make its global debut in the next generation of the V40, a model that will also inaugurate a new modular platform called CMA.

Volvo Autonomous Car
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While Mertens stopped short of providing full technical details, he told us that Volvo has a few tricks up its sleeves. For starters, the three-pot is being designed to work seamlessly with an electric motor as part of a plug-in hybrid drivetrain capable of powering every model from the V40 up to the S90. It will be available in several states of tune, and Volvo will prove there’s a replacement for displacement by making the three-cylinder available on the next-gen S60 and V60 models, two cars that will ride on the same SPA platform as the S90. Finally – and perhaps most surprisingly –, the three-cylinder is being designed with United States regulations in mind.

All told, Volvo’s 2020 drivetrain arsenal will consist of a purely electric setup that’s expected to launch in 2019, three- and four-cylinder gasoline- and diesel-burning engines, and at least two plug-in hybrid units. The company hasn’t committed to phasing out diesels because they’re still widely popular in Europe, but it openly admits the days of the big-bore engine are over.

Volvo has been dabbling in high-tech safety features that give the car the power to make a decision on its own for years.

“I strongly believe in progress, and progress definitely means that this dogma of counting cylinders will become quite old-fashioned. At the end of the day that’s our profile, and if someone still says ‘I need an eight-cylinder in my car’ then we are not the right brand for them,” affirmed Thomas Ingenlath, the senior vice president of Volvo’s design department.

That doesn’t mean Volvo is done building enthusiast-friendly cars. Its T8 plug-in hybrid drivetrain delivers a 400-plus-hp punch in its most powerful configuration, and hot-rodded Volvo hybrids tuned by Polestar are right around the corner.

It gets better. Everyone we spoke to at Volvo said with a huge grin that they’d really, really, really like to turn the stunning Concept Coupe into a production model. It might not arrive until much later in the decade, when the brand’s bold revival plan has been completed, but it certainly hasn’t been deep-sixed.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American automotive and tech journalist based in southern France. As a long-time contributor to Digital…
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