Volvo Cars' claims it will offer Level 4 models by 2021 means the premium carmaker will likely have to finalize the driverless design to meet the aggressive timeline by next year at the latest.
But in consideration of the Swedish carmaker's aggressive goals, the extent to which Volvo-badged cars will be able to allow the driver to take a nap in the backseat as the vehicle self-pilots from point A to point B also remains to be seen.
Volvo's timeline to offer a Level 4 vehicle by 2021 also means it will likely have to complete the design of the neural network onboard computer, mapping software, sensors, and other technology by next year since the design cycle for cars is typically three to five years.
Compared to Level 3 cars, which require input from the driver when prompted to take control of the vehicle, Level 4 models auto-pilot the vehicle from point A to B without human intervention.
When contacted by Driverless, a Volvo spokesman said the company was confident it will deliver Level 4 driving by 2021, but would not comment further.
If successful, Volvo will very likely take a clear lead ahead of the competition, even in the premium car sector. The goal is not impossible — and yet, Aaron Dale, an analyst for IHS Automotive, told Driverless.
Technically level 4 automation by 2021 is achievable, and as such not an unrealistic aim, although it is far sooner that IHS Automotive forecast, especially in the luxury sector of the market. However, regulation and general market acceptance of autonomous driving tech has the very real potential to slow progression. It is likely that level 4 autonomous vehicles will be introduced first in small numbers in limited environments and certain geographies.
Among Volvo's direct competitors in the premium space, Audi is rolling out the A8 equipped with sensors, a mapping system, and an onboard machine-taught computer for Level 3 driving in July, while it will require a software update in order for the advanced driverless capabilities to work. BMW plans to offer Level 3 capabilities when it introduces the iNext, but it is not slated for launch until 2021.
It is also very likely that Volvo will have completed the hardware design very shortly to meet the production cycle schedule, but has more time to develop the software. Tesla's ongoing updates for its Autopilot driverless capabilities for its models, for example, shows how software tweaks can be completed long after the hardware is finalized.
On an industry-wide scale, real-world testing and improvements in the commercial viability of integrated systems are still a "work in progress," Dale says.
This is part of the reason that IHS Automotive does not forecast Level 4 automated vehicles being on the roads, in any significant number, before 2021. Additionally, level 4 is the first real step in removing the driver from the driving process. This means that it presents automakers their first real chance to redesign the cockpit towards experience rather than driving, and again, this will add to the timespan.
Last week, Volvo said it will develop driverless software with Autoliv, a Swedish car safety systems supplier, based on chipmaker Nvidia's artificial intelligence car-computing platform. Under the terms of the agreement, the companies will develop the software through Zenuity, a newly-formed automotive software development joint venture equally owned by Volvo Cars and Autoliv. Zenuity will provide Volvo with self-driving software for its models, while Autoliv will sell the software to third-party OEMs.
The fact that Volvo has just announced a software and systems agreement last week signifies its Level 4 capacities are likely still in the development stages. In order to deliver on time, Volvo certainly does not have much leeway to make up for lost time if it runs into problems with Autoliv. However, so far, Volvo remains very vocal about delivering what could be the first commercial-ready Level 4 cars for retail channels by 2021.
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