Ed Wallace

Self-driving cars: It begins

It was one of those fun little stories that went around the world: A police officer in Mountain View, Calif., pulled over one of Google’s self-driving cars. First, it was the human driver who brought the car to a stop, so one must assume that Google vehicles are not programmed to pull over when flashing blue and red lights appear in the review mirror.

Second, this car was driving the speed limit programmed into it, which happened to have been less than the road’s posted limit. It hadn’t broken any laws other than inhibiting traffic, poking along at 10 miles under the speed limit. This is our object lesson on how self-driving cars will frustrate actively engaged drivers in the future.

Now, as that story was going viral I was driving what is supposed to be the world’s first semi-self-driving car for the masses: The all-new 2016 Volvo XC-90. To be fair, the manufacturer is not claiming that this is a true self-driving car; it simply has technology on board that can assist drivers under many road conditions. Some of which can be found on other vehicles. Then again, there is that feature called Pilot Assist; it’s meant for autonomous driving, assuming you trust the vehicle in front of you — more on that in a moment.

Intuitively brilliant

For more than a decade Volvo has made truly exceptional SUVs and called them the XC series. One of Volvo’s best claims to fame is its interior ergonomics. In a world where most auto manufacturers strive to design the most knobs, buttons and controls into their products — or put the most confusing touch screens in the dash — Volvo just keeps proving that minimalism and controlling all of the necessary driving functions aren’t mutually exclusive.

Honda was once the leader in brilliant ergonomics, but Volvo has held that honor for a long time now. And one can tell that in Volvo’s new XC-90: Its center-dash touch screen works so much like an iPad® that I’m stunned Apple hasn’t sued over it. (Autobahn’s Chase Chase tells me it was an Apple-Volvo project.) It’s so intuitive that you don’t need the owner’s manual to make anything work, but shockingly easy to use even while driving.

So many reviews had made clear that this new Volvo was the high-tech vehicle with which every reviewer was truly impressed, I had to test that position. Just recently I reviewed a $160,000 Mercedes S63 AMG; it shares many high-tech features with this Volvo. One feature will center the car in the lane it’s in. But I actually turned it off, because that Benz had a habit of ‘re-centering’ itself while it was already in the dead center of the lane.

Something about the way this Volvo’s centering system worked told me it was different. When you start to change lanes without using a turn signal — which tells the vehicle you are intentionally doing this — it tries to keep you from drifting out of your lane. Not so firmly that you can’t finish the lane change easily, but it was a bit more ‘positive’ pushback than other vehicles offer. Now it was time to see how well it worked without the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.

A word of caution: Volvo in no way recommends doing this.

Heading off east on I-30 through downtown, I let the Volvo keep itself inside the lane chosen. (Again, kids, this is a feature to help one pay attention while driving, not to drive the car itself.) But it was amazing how well it worked — up to a point. As these systems are perfected, they will learn to center the car in any given lane and keep it there. But current systems, such as in this Volvo, are designed to move the car back into the lane when it senses you are about to cross a lane marking. So this Volvo would stay perfectly centered until the road changed direction slightly or the grade changed, and it would drift one direction, sense the road marker and drift the other direction until it sensed the road marker, and so on: I was in a constant slow weave from side to side in my lane.

Anyone passing me on the freeway and noticing that my hands were not on the steering wheel must have thought, “Wow, Ed’s drinking and driving fairly early this morning.”

Insured to engage?

Now it was time to test the Pilot Assist. Here’s how it works: Once engaged, it zeroes in on the car in front of you and does whatever that car is doing. That’s right, you don’t have to steer or brake — or so they say.

First, I found that it doesn’t work at 70 miles an hour, or even 60. This feature is designed for speeds under 30 miles an hour, and is basically for being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. One official with Volvo bragged that the car had driven itself for 90 minutes this way; that must have been the worst traffic jam ever.

But near Dallas the speed on the overpass going into downtown dropped to under 30, and I engaged the system following a white Mustang. So far, so good: It kept me a reasonable distance from the Mustang and handled the turn north on the bridge flawlessly. And then that Mustang slammed on its brakes — and lights and sounds went off in that Volvo like you’ve never heard. That electronic version of a panic attack even boosted my heart rate quite a bit.

In theory, the Volvo should have stopped itself. But given the distance and speed, I took control back at that point, so I can’t say.

Still, I think that the adaptive cruise control worked better on this new Volvo than on most other vehicles I have tested. That is, you set the cruise and it keeps a reasonable distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. If they slow down, so do you. If they speed up, you stay at the same speed. Combine that with the software that keeps you in one lane, and you theoretically have the basis for some forms of self-driving cars. So I tried that at freeway speeds, and on the straighter parts of I-30 in Arlington I went about 10 miles without touching the gas or brake pedals. I touched the steering wheel, but rarely.

And that’s only because the car warns you constantly to put your hands back on the steering wheel; and, if you drift around enough, it suggests that you are drowsy. Yet for 10 miles I got my second real sense of what a self-driving car can do.

Mark my highways!

Yes, the individual pieces for self-driving cars are already here, and they’re working better today than they did last year.

In testing this system, though, I also found a pitfall to the entire “self-driving” concept: Our highways’ condition and marking. We’ve long known that self-driving cars won’t work in snow, because the sensors can’t see the road or its markings. I’m fairly sure heavy rain could also be a problem for the vehicles’ computer programs. But even on the clearest day our highway markings often fade away, or suddenly don’t even exist — and when that happens, the car is completely lost. Still, this Volvo is hands down the best representation and delivery of driving aids; this manufacturer deserves commendation.

Then it came to me that, when I was a little kid, Six Flags was offering rides in self-driving cars. True, moving metal guides sticking up into the car’s undercarriage may have been primitive; but, to the best of my knowledge, every last rider in those cars stayed on the track. Then again, everybody ran into each other’s bumpers at the end of the ride.

© Ed Wallace 2015

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Association. He hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com