Date:11 September 2017
Volvo’s XC90 is the cleverest car on South Africa’s roads right now, says Lindsey Schutters.
I’ve been quick to outsource my driving ever since I first engaged cruise control on the N1 between Pretoria and Cape Town. That pilgrimage has come to define the early part of my life, but if I could just be a passenger as the car drove itself, I’d rather have it that way.
Driving the Volvo XC90
The Volvo XC90 is a car I genuinely love for many reasons, but mostly for the thoughtfulness. There’s a little plastic clip that lets you display an access disc on the windscreen and a special function called Pilot Assist. It allows the car to drive itself at speeds under 50 km/h. The feature needs a car ahead of it and clear road markings to work. But it is very effective when in full swing. Pilot Assist transformed my morning commute.
See, I live in what the 2016 TomTom Traffic Index found to be the most traffic congested city in South Africa: Cape Town. My home is also about 40 km away from my office. I travel from Stellenbosch in the direction of the CBD. It’s hell. I used to do Pretoria to Sandton on the daily, so I know that the Cape Town situation is a special kind of torture. But all the carnage melts away while I’m coddled in the climate-controlled embrace of the Volvo. One finger touching the steering wheel is enough to keep the car happy in the knowledge that I’m still alive and won’t abandon it. I’m comfortable enough in the XC90’s automatic braking to even treat myself to catching up on my reading.
All about assistance
Cape Town traffic adds on average an extra 40 minutes of travel time to road journeys daily. Pilot Assist is an evolution of Volvo’s ever-improving IntelliSafe system, which debuted on the S60 years ago with the CitySafe auto braking and pedestrian recognition. It’s a clever integration of radar technology that is now being fine-tuned to detect all manner of road hazards from cyclists to animals. The new system recruits the four cameras into the arsenal of sensors for better object recognition, with the side mirror lenses on lane keeping and blind spot monitoring duty. There’s also some Lidar built in for more accurate distance tracking and 3D modelling.
Even with all this sensor data, I still had to intervene with a small steering input to evade a taxi that considered the four-metre minimum following distance to be an invitation for a lane change. The system’s main failing in addressing my needs is that it needs clear sight of the lane markings. No clearly painted line, no Pilot Assist. The system won’t even accept a pavement as a guide.
I doubt this to be a problem in the European cities this car was designed to operate in, but the more rural suburban areas must surely face the same challenges. In free-flowing traffic situations, the XC90 won’t steer for you, but the adaptive cruise control can operate at very slow speeds, so there’s the option to outsource control over just the throttle control and braking. It’s by no means a new feature, but many manufacturers offer the same service to varying degrees. I personally love the Mercedes implementation, which will also keep you in your lane with an aggressive power cut and steering shove, and Ford offers great value if you specify the feature on a Kuga or Fusion.
The same, but different
There are more advanced versions of this idea available in other territories and at the moment Tesla’s Autopilot is the most complete option. The Elon Musk-developed car adds GPS to the self-driving corps and will learn over time. If you take the same road every day the car will identify that trend and pay special attention to the road conditions. If there’s a speed bump and you raise the suspension at that point, the car will start doing it automatically.
Similarly, if there’s a bend, the car will gradually improve its driving line and speed choices. But the beauty of Tesla’s approach to the autonomous car is that, when you get home and the car connects to WiFi, it feeds that information to the cloud and every Auto Pilot-equipped Tesla has access to that information. That system also operates at infinite speeds, but governed by speed limits that the car will detect through the camera data. It works so well that the company is claiming a 50 per cent reduction in car crash incidents.
The daily commute
I love driving so much that it’s one of the reasons I joined Popular Mechanics, but traffic isn’t driving. I’d be a lot more comfortable if I could get some work done in the sometimes two hours that it takes to get to work by car. True happiness is also the absence of liability. It’s fantastic to not have the added stress of having to avoid anything or anyone. Road accident data is skewed towards fatalities, but just viewing the evidence on a daily commute gives the sense that non-fatal accidents dominate on congested roads.
A life without the inconvenience of fender benders is what we all should be striving for and the only way we’ll achieve that is by letting the cars take over. Imagine the impact that situation would have on the insurance industry. Although no company would go on record with a statement, the overwhelming sentiment is that the autonomous car would reduce risk to the point of making accidental damage insurance obsolete.
I won’t see it in my lifetime, though. I know this because the technology is currently an expensive optional extra and there is no indication of that changing. For instance, Tesla’s Autopilot is a $2 500 added extra. The hardware is standard on all new Model S, X and the upcoming Model 3, but the software is optional. As infuriating as that may sound, you can kind of forgive the company for pursuing aggressive profit margins. Tesla has opened up its patented technology to the free market and open source AutoPilot is great for everybody.
It doesn’t help that the masses are still vulnerable to insurance companies that refuse to pay out claims because they can’t afford a million-rand SUV. There’s also the tide of privileged folk who choose to invest in raw power and speed provided by motoring manufacturers that only think as far as vehicle occupants in its safety offerings.If all the cars on the road were smart, constantly communicating with each other via high-speed data transfer, we’d have no traffic.
Machines don’t second guess and will always indicate. Robots can’t take eyes off the road. Drones don’t deviate from the programmed path. Cars also don’t drink alcohol. They run on it, mainly. Humans do forget things, though. We’re also paranoid that the machines we create will one day seek to overthrow us. The problem with that is although computers have started learning from each other, we still do the programming. I’m more than comfortable telling a car where I need to go and it driving me there. That scenario also ties in with Volvo’s bold Vision 2020.
The Swedish company is said to be developing services and software in partnership with Microsoft. The idea flighted in its marketing video places Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana at the centre of the equation. This allows the vehicle owner to request that the address for a meeting be sent to the XC90. Logic dictates that after the man leaves the coffee shop and the screen fades to black. He gets behind the steering wheel and is chauffeured to the destination. It’s supposed to be that easy. Flying is that easy. Taking a train is almost that easy.
Budget smart driving
But a car doesn’t need to be able to drive itself to be considered clever. Parking is another part of the motoring hell we’ve created for ourselves. How much land has been converted into a space to leave your car? That flush of pride you feel when emerging from an unscathed vehicle in a particularly tight parking spot is your body rewarding you after a time of severe stress. For under R300 000, you could climb into an Opel Adam that can park itself perfectly every time.
There are limitations, like only working in on the left-hand side, but it’s a start. The best thing on Earth would be to arrive at a busy shopping mall, pull up to the entrance, get out and send the car to find its own parking space. The system will rely on the sensor data from the parking lot (like those red and green lights at OR Tambo airport).
The cars can also employ a low-power wireless standard and tell each other where the open bays are. When you’re done shopping you summon your car to you, because you’re leaving from a different exit than you arrived. The climate control will already have the cabin at your desired temperature. Your music will be queued up and your next destination will already be preselected on the navigation system. See, Google Now, Siri and Cortana have flagged your agenda by scanning your texts, calls and emails.
In this world all cars ship with a compatible infotainment system, loaded with the software of your choice. Android Auto, CarPlay and Sync allow operating system makers to delve into your car’s system and control relevant settings. Your car is, to all intents and purposes, a bot. It is constantly monitoring your life to pre-empt tasks that make your life simpler. You can already summon a Tesla like a dog obeying your command. You can even have the car eerily follow you along because it tracks your key fob. On its new 7-Series, BMW will let you view a vehicle diagnostic on its smart key and even start up certain systems remotely. Many manufacturers have home-baked applications for Android or iOS that allow remote engine start and climate control.
The expectation vs. the reality
We’ve been sold a lie. Cars are liabilities that manufacturers market as essentials because they maintain the status quo. But since we’re already at a point where our world is designed around the idea that every successful person owns a motorcar befitting their station in life and meets the needs of their lifestyle, cars have to work harder to earn their keep. That means they need to get smarter. A lot smarter. And as I’m being driven through traffic affected by three car crashes. I’m very happy to be at the helm of the cleverest car on South African roads at the moment.
It still has a way to go in terms of being the future reality that is capable. But that requires even more thoughtfulness on the part of manufacturers and better co-operation between software companies and hardware makers. And it needs to be made cheaper. We should support initiatives from Google, Tesla, Ford and Volvo. They are our firsts steps to the future that was promised. We should buy their products and familiarise ourselves with the idea of outsourcing control over our vehicles.
We should banish the notion that assumes that driving is part of masculinity. Man made the wheel to save on manpower. We built the car because it was better than the horse. Making the car more clever is just another rung on the ladder of evolution. The quicker we master the autonomous car, the closer we get to taking to the skies. Now that would be really clever.