Volvo is developing the software needed for future autonomous cars – but the company’s CEO says it will be a long time before it sells a vehicle without a steering wheel.
The boss of Volvo says laws to allow autonomous cars to ditch steering wheels may be a long way away.
The Chinese-owned Swedish company is one of hundreds of car makers and technology firms developing advanced autonomous driving technology capable of piloting the car with no input from occupants.
However, Volvo CEO Jim Rowan told Australian media last month the technology will not be ready in the immediate future to ditch the steering wheel or pedals, which would be used in case of an emergency situation.
“In the short term, it is unlikely there will be no steering wheel. Fully-autonomous driving will be governed much more by legislation than technology. The issue is going to be the legislation,” Mr Rowan said.
The executive said fully-autonomous driving may be limited to built-up areas with safer roads can be mapped – leaving drivers to take control behind the wheel when venturing into rural areas.
“Personally, I think full autonomy will start in designated highways, key routes, like San Francisco airport to downtown as one example,” Rowan said.
“Then of course, if you move out of San Francisco to drive to Utah for example, you’re probably going to need a steering wheel.”
Volvo has been more conservative in placing launch dates on the roll-out of its autonomous driving technology than some other car makers, which have been forced to backtrack from their claims after encountering roadblocks in development.
“A full change to autonomous driving is quite a way away,” Rowan said.
“It’s different country by country, let alone state by state and we’ve been focused on spending a lot of money building the software to continue to improve autonomous driving assistance, all the way up to full autonomy.”
Mr Rowan says the company’s range of luxury cars – including the new electric EX90 seven-seat SUV, which is expected to cost close to $140,000 when it reaches Australia late next year – means it can more easily justify charging customers extra for autonomous driving technology.
“We’re not a mass market brand, we’re a premium brand. And our customers would rather feel that we put in that safety technology even if that comes at that additional cost.”
He added: “the technology is expensive right now, but it will come down in cost as we learn more about it.”
Among the Volvo EX90’s range of autonomous-driving sensors is lidar, which Mr Rowan claims can “see 200 metres in pitch black darkness”.
US electric-car giant Tesla began its move away from traditional sensors such as radar for its autonomous driving technology last year – and has begun relying solely on cameras, even though some of the car’s features need radar to operate, and it is yet to release replacements.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been an outspoken critic of lidar technology, reportedly calling it a “fool’s errand” at an event in 2019 – even though most global car makers are implementing the sensor technology in their future cars.