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Yes, Volvo’s new sedan is pretty to look at. But even more impressive is the Swedish luxury marque’s IntelliSafe innovations that make autonomous driving a reality — just about
Eduan R. Maggo
The big question with technology is always real-world application. Purists say advancement without usability is pointless. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. The biggest buzzword in the industry at the moment is autonomy. And in the automotive sector specifically, it’s all about autonomous driving. Which raises a series of questions, most importantly: What will self-driving cars ultimately look like?
While science fiction and over-optimistic car execs have been selling us a future in which we can select a destination and sit back to let the vehicle do all the driving for us, recent setbacks in self-driving programmes at many industry leaders would suggest we’re still a long way from that distant reality.
What we have had for a while is a range of driver-assist systems, where the vehicles augment driver instinct and response. To be fair, the automotive industry has made great strides with this technology. But humans being human, these haven’t always been as fast as expected. The problem is, we want it all. And we want it now.
The Volvo S90 blends the best of Scandinavian design with advanced technology. With exquisite finishing in its interior, it brings first class travel to the road.
So, great was my surprise when I experienced what Volvo has achieved in this field. Largely without fanfare, I might add, as I’d been driving the new S90 for a few days before the full implications of its driver-assist technology dawned on me.
Sure, cruise-control and lane-discipline systems have become passé. On an empty highway you reach the speed you want, push a button to maintain that speed and then you can take your foot off the pedal, while haptic feedback in the steering wheel alerts you when you’re drifting out of your lane. That’s commonplace these days. Driving to Ras Al Khaimah for a weekend break, that’s what I was expecting.
Only the S90 takes cruise control a step further by actually regulating your speed according to the distance guide you can set, instead of merely disengaging when you touch the brakes. This means it slows down and speeds up according to traffic conditions: a very useful tool when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic.
Even more impressive is that when we came to a bend in the road, the steering wheel started moving under my hands. This happened at a second curve, and on the third, I lifted my hands slightly off the wheel, and saw the car actually navigate the corner all on its own: It turned the wheels, it regulated the speed — everything!
Now, of course Volvo doesn’t want you to actually relinquish total control of the vehicle. So the driver-assist system disengages when it senses you’ve taken your hands off the wheel for too long. Who can blame the Swedes? Self-driving cars aren’t quite a reality yet, remember.
But I sense this is more to avoid costly lawsuits in the event something does go wrong. Because on that trip I learnt we are there: yes, self-driving cars are a reality.
The S90 proved this theory back in Dubai. Driving along Hessa Street, one of the drivers the emirate is famous for (you know, the ones who don’t know the correlation between speed and distance, and who haven’t figured out what indicators are for) necessitated an emergency stop. Astonishingly, the car reacted a split second before I could. It not only slammed on the brakes but also tightened the seat belts to keep the passengers safe and snug.
Now, to be honest, I did find the S90 a bit more cautious than I or most drivers would usually be. The programme takes the safe approach, in keeping with the marque’s reputation as manufacturer of the safest cars in the world. It slows down a bit sooner than humans do when assessing conditions, and it maintains a following distance too enticing for lane weavers to pass up. That’s not a bad thing, though. Think of it as the good guy to your bad guy — the Dr. Jekyll to your Hyde, saving you from yourself.
The S90 is a stylish, luxurious guardian angel. Rest assured: the autonomous driving future is closer than we think.
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