Volvo made its self-driving ambitions clear Thursday with the announcement of a pilot program that will put 100 autonomous cars on Swedish roads by 2017.
The program is unique in that it hands the keys to customers rather than company engineers. The test subjects will be able to operate the cars autonomously on select roads around Volvo's hometown of Gothenburg.
"We are entering uncharted territory in the field of autonomous driving," said Peter Mertens, senior vice president of research and development for Volvo. "Taking the exciting step to a public pilot, with the ambition to enable ordinary people to sit behind the wheel in normal traffic on public roads, has never been done before."
Volvo touts the program as a unique collaboration with the Swedish government, the city of Gothenburg and the Lindholmen Science Park. Roughly 30 miles of highways in the city have been approved for the self-driving cars, which will be allowed to operate only in specific conditions when no oncoming traffic, pedestrians or cyclists are present.
A variety of drivers who use the preapproved route regularly will be chosen for the pilot program, including the young and the old, skeptics and early adopters, and experienced and inexperienced drivers.
Volvo will equip 100 of its new XC90 crossovers with a laundry list of sensors, radars, cameras and lasers that will give the vehicle a 360-degree view of what's happening on the road.
These include a camera on every side of the vehicle, a radar on each of the car's four corners, a laser looking ahead of the XC90, another pair of long-range radars looking behind it, and 12 ultrasonic sensors looking around the car at close range.
These systems will gather data about the roads and conditions around them in real time and will use GPS to compare the vehicle's surrounding to an existing 3D map.
Once the cars reach the end of the approved autonomous zone, they will prompt the driver to resume control. If the driver cannot, the car will find a safe place to stop. Fail-safe measures include a secondary -- and completely independent -- braking system
The automaker wanted to develop a real-world program to gather data on how self-driving cars operate on public roads, and what effect they could have on fuel consumption, safety, traffic and urban planning. It's another step toward Volvo's stated goal that no humans would be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020.
True to its practical roots, the Chinese-owned, Swedish automaker chose the real-world approach rather than simply building an attention-grabbing concept car of the future.
"It is relatively easy to build and demonstrate a self-driving concept vehicle, but if you want to create an impact in the real world, you have to design and produce a complete system that will be safe, robust and affordable for ordinary customers," said Erik Coelingh, a technical specialist at Volvo.
That's a subtle jab at Mercedes-Benz, which used January's annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to unveil the F 015 Luxury in Motion, a forward-thinking concept car that showed Mercedes' vision of what a self-driving luxury car could look like roughly 15 years in the future.
Volvo is just one of several automakers taking the future of self-driving cars seriously.
Audi drove an autonomous A7 prototype in limited circumstances from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas for CES in January. Cadillac has promised to bring a semi-autonomous highway system to its vehicles beginning in 2017. And Mercedes completed a road test in Germany of a self-driving S500 sedan in 2013.