Volvo zooms into market for self-driving cars

John Egan

With an eye toward attracting younger buyers from the Facebook generation, Swedish automaker Volvo is entering the race for development of self-driving cars.

At an automotive show Sept. 17 in Monaco, Volvo President and CEO Stefan Jacoby boldly predicted: “Personally, I am convinced that the majority of tomorrow’s car owners will not even dream of buying a car without autonomous driving possibilities.”

Jacoby may not be far off in his forecast. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) envisions self-driving cars will account for up to three-fourths of vehicles on the road by the year 2040. In fact, Azim Eskandarian, director of the Center for Intelligent Systems Research, foresees no need for driver’s licenses once the self-driving era is in full swing.

Autonomous cars control steering, acceleration and braking, leaving the human driver to focus on other activities, such as posting an update on Facebook or reading a book.

Volvo executives and other experts say self-driving cars should dramatically reduce the number of auto accidents – which, in turn, should mean lower auto insurance rates. However, it’s unclear at this point how auto insurance companies will cover self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars already are being tested in Nevada; Google is conducting the experiment with Toyota Prius hybrids. Other states looking at letting self-driving cars cruise their roads are Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii and Oklahoma. Other automakers that are working on self-driving cars include Audi, BMW and GM, according to Wired.com.

Marcus Rothoff, product manager for driver assistance at Volvo, says in a news release: “Our aim is to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving by moving beyond concepts and pioneering technologies that will reach the customers. Making these features reliable enough to use on public roads is crucial to boosting customer confidence in self-driving cars.”

A 2012 study by market research company J.D. Power and Associates found that 20 percent of car owners would be interested in buying a self-driving vehicle. The level of interest fell from 37 percent after car owners learned of the estimated price of self-driving technology – $3,000. In a news release, Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power, says many consumers remain leery of self-driving technology and want to see the concept “proved out” before hopping behind the wheel of an autonomous car.

“Hardly anyone thinks twice about being in an airplane that flies on autopilot. But being in a car that drives by itself while the driver reads a book is still quite a revolutionary thought for many people,” Rothoff says.

In developing self-driving cars, Volvo and other automakers are trying to cater to younger drivers who are practically chained to their smartphones.

“Teenagers look at cars with different, less traditional eyes than we, their parents, do,” Volvo’s Jacoby says. “When we regard the driver’s seat as a symbol for freedom and mobility, they see the only place where they can’t be constantly connected. And many of them think that this constant connectivity is more important than having a driver’s license and a car.”

 

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