By Sean Tucker
All the commotion around autonomous cars has prominently featured Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +2.73% , with a side of reports from General Motors /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +1.79% and Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +1.84% . But a surprise contender has said it plans to sell something closer to an autonomous car than anything currently on American roads. Volvo’s /zigman2/quotes/208069681/delayed VLVLY +1.90% in the mix. There are several important caveats to the news, however.
Volvo Ride Pilot
At the CES consumer electronics show, Volvo announced a new Level 3 autonomous system it calls Ride Pilot.
It combines lidar, radar, ultrasonic sensors, and 360-degree cameras to allow a car to navigate roads without driver input. “We will not require hands on the steering wheel, and we will not require eyes on the road,” Volvo’s Chief Technologies Officer Henrik Green says.
The company explains, “Once it has been verified as safe for use on highways, Ride Pilot is planned to be available as an add-on subscription on the company’s forthcoming fully electric SUV. This new flagship car for the company will be revealed later this year.”
The meaning of autonomous
First things first: There are no truly autonomous cars for sale in the U.S. at the moment, and there probably won’t be any by the end of 2022.
SAE International , a global association of engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle industries, has set the industry standard for evaluating self-driving systems. They organize autonomous driving systems into five levels.
Several automakers now produce SAE Level 2 systems. These involve features that can communicate with each other – for instance, a smart cruise control that can keep a set distance from cars ahead and a lane-keeping system that can center the car in its lane.
GM’s Super Cruise (and its upcoming improved Ultra Cruise) and Ford’s BlueCruise meet these criteria, but neither lets the driver take their attention from the road. So does Tesla’s misleadingly named Full Self-Driving option.
No one yet offers a Level 3 system for sale in the U.S. At Level 3, a car can drive itself under limited conditions. A driver must still be ready to take over at any time. But the car can navigate on its own without driver input.
If Volvo can do everything it says, Ride Pilot may be the first Level 3 system on U.S. roads. With Ride Pilot, Volvo says, “drivers will be able to free up time while driving, and spend it on secondary activities like reading, writing, working or socializing.”
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All those asterisks **
But there are several reasons to be cautious.
First of all, there’s the car itself. Volvo’s announcement refers to a new electric flagship. Volvo has announced plans to go all-electric by 2030. Last year, it introduced its first vehicle built from the ground up as an all-electric, the C40 Recharge.
But Volvo’s announcement doesn’t concern that car. Instead, the company says Ride Pilot will appear on a future vehicle – likely an electric replacement for the XC90 SUV – that hasn’t made its public debut yet. The vehicle is likely based on a concept car called Concept Recharge, pictured above.
Cars sometimes go on sale the same year they’re first debuted to the press, but it’s rare. If this new electric flagship does make it into customer hands this year, it’s likely to happen very late in 2022.
Second, there’s the legal situation. Volvo intends to begin testing Ride Pilot on California roads this year “pending necessary approvals,” the company says. So whether Volvo gets to test its system is outside the company’s control.
Lastly, if Volvo manages to ship the new car this year and win regulator approval for Ride Pilot, it intends to offer the system on a subscription basis to a limited number of buyers in California. Volvo says its “ambition” is to introduce Ride Pilot in California and later spread it outside that state.
So, even if Volvo does manage to deliver the car on time and win regulatory approval to test Ride Pilot, the system may not make it to your neighborhood in 2022.