Driverless vehicles and zero road deaths might sound like something from a science-fiction film but both are approaching reality in Sweden. Volvo Cars began testing self-driving cars as long ago as 2013, and since then the project has accelerated on several fronts.
One example is Volvo Cars’ involvement in the innovative ‘Drive Me’ project, designed to involve real people in testing self-driving technology.
And Volvo was flooded with interested applicants after they announced the project, which involves dozens of Swedes test driving a unique XC90 on designated routes on some of the busiest streets in Gothenburg.
As the vast majority of road traffic accidents are caused by human error, the aim of the ‘Drive Me’ project is to learn how drivers’ react and interact when surrendering the controls of the vehicle. All of the data from the testing, e.g. how a car navigates traffic, will be analysed by Volvo’s team of engineers and used to create an ultra-safe self-driving vehicle.
And while one human can learn from a driving mistake, Volvo’s connected-cars technology allows the same lesson can be transferred to a million other self-driving cars and save lives in the process.
Sweden has long campaigned to minimise the number of road deaths. Indeed, Vision Zero was launched by the Swedish government in 1997, when more than 500 people were killed on Sweden’s roads, and since then the number of traffic-related fatalities has decreased by almost half.
And on Sweden’s west coast there is a dedicated test facility, AstaZero, tasked with trying to reduce that figure further, with the aim of having zero road fatalities in Sweden.
Billed as the ‘world’s first full-scale test environment for future road safety’, AstaZero has attracted backing from the likes of Volvo and Scania due to its pioneering work. The unique test facility can simulate any potential scenario on the road and make it a reality.
Naturally, autonomous vehicles are on the agenda at AstaZero along with many other hi-tech programmes such as communication systems to enable cars to communicate with other vehicles. There is also the ongoing development of sensors that, in time, will be able to detect if a driver is becoming sleepy or has alcohol in their system.
Together with backing from Swedish vehicle makers, the research at AstaZero also has the brainpower support from Gothenburg’s internationally renowned Chalmers University of Technology.
China’s Geely Holding Group, which owns Volvo Cars, also chose Gothenburg as one of its research and design hubs for the company’s latest automotive brand, Lynk & Co. Indeed, southwestern Sweden is quickly gaining a reputation as an automotive Silicon Valley with German engineering giant Bosch choosing Gothenburg for development of automotive systems and components, and Lund for a mobility systems innovation incubator.
A holistic approach to road safety has been mapped out as part of the Drive Sweden initiative, a government-backed strategic innovation programme that brings together leading companies in the mobility, transport, and tech sectors. The programme allows various stakeholders to work together to explore completely new approaches to mobility, with self-driving cars just one component of the overall strategy.
“A car sits idle for 95 percent of the time; we see this as being like the Spotify of the transportation industry. We need to start sharing resources,” explains Drive Sweden Program Director, Jan Hellåker.
International interest in the project has been huge with ministers from Singapore, Japan and China visiting Sweden to monitor the latest developments. Hellåker says that Sweden is continuing its trendsetting approach with the project.
“We traditionally have a more holistic way of doing things compared to other nations. There isn’t any other country that has this type of government sponsored involvement on a project of this nature,” he explains.
“Sweden has a very strong automotive industry, which has been very responsive and quick to get onboard. Everybody in the industry realises that something major is about to happen and it is happening fast.” And with Volvo recently inking a deal with car sharing service Uber for thousands of autonomous vehicles, it seems as though driverless cars and a new approach to mobility are here to stay. Just like the three-point seat belt.