By on June 12, 2019

Uber Advanced Technologies unveiled the next generation of its self-driving SUV on Wednesday. Sticking with the Volvo XC90 as a platform, Uber stated that the latest prototypes should be capable of operating autonomously, adding that previous versions were not necessarily built with full autonomy in mind and required the presence of a safety driver behind the wheel.

While past versions of Uber’s test platform essentially retrofitted vehicles purchased from Volvo Cars, this new batch was co-developed with the automaker. Volvo said the project represents the “next step in the strategic collaboration between both companies.”

Volvo previously claimed that the cyclist killed by one of Uber’s autonomous test vehicles in 2018 might still be alive had the firm not tampered with the automatic emergency braking system all XC90s come equipped with. Uber’s latest SUVs utilize all of Volvo’s existing safety features, building on top of them with its own systems and creating as much redundancy as possible. 

From Volvo:

The most important features of Volvo Cars’ autonomous drive-ready production vehicle include several back-up systems for both steering and braking functions as well as battery back-up power. If any of the primary systems should fail for some reason, the back-up systems are designed to immediately act to bring the car to a stop.

In addition to Volvo’s built-in back-up systems, an array of sensors atop and built into the vehicle are designed for Uber’s self-driving system to safely operate and maneuver in an urban environment.

The added emphasis on safety appears to be the main focus of this new generation of SUVs. While the self-driving software is presumably improved as well, details are scant. Yet the vehicles still don’t appear to be capable of true autonomy, as Volvo said “Uber’s self-driving system may one day allow for safe, reliable autonomous ridesharing without the need for a Mission Specialist, the specially trained Uber employees operating and overseeing the car in areas designated and suitable for autonomous drive.”

Like most modern-day autonomous vehicles, a safety driver will remain present at all times — existing as the car’s last line of defense as testing continues. That may make it sound like not much progress is being made over at Uber, but companies like Waymo (which runs what is arguably the most-advanced self-driving test fleet in North America) still makes use of safety drivers.

Volvo’s involvement also doesn’t hurt. While the automaker isn’t seen as a global leader in terms of self-driving, it does boast an impressive away of advanced driving aids and is currently using Nvidia’s Drive AGX Xavier kit to develop its next generation of assisted-driving vehicles. It also has the manufacturing might that Uber lacks entirely.

“Working in close cooperation with companies like Volvo is a key ingredient to effectively building a safe, scalable, self-driving fleet,” Eric Meyhofer, CEO of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, said in a statement. “Volvo has long been known for their commitment to safety, which is the cornerstone of their newest production-ready self-driving base vehicle. When paired with our self-driving technology, this vehicle will be a key ingredient in Uber’s autonomous product suite.”

Meanwhile, Volvo has aspirations of its own. The aforementioned Nvidia-kissed vehicles are supposed to begin arriving in 2020, serving as the framework for subsequent products with legitimate self-driving credentials. At the very least, we know the company wants to launch something akin to Cadillac’s Super Cruise as soon as possible. It previously claimed it would produce a genuine self-driving car by 2021.

“By the middle of the next decade we expect one-third of all cars we sell to be fully autonomous. Our agreement with Uber underlines our ambition to be the supplier of choice to the world’s leading ride-hailing companies,” explained Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson.

[Images: Volvo Cars]

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11 Comments on “Emphasis on Safety: Uber, Volvo Launch Next Generation of Autonomous SUVs...”


  • avatar
    SPPPP

    I would guess that the PRC elite likes the idea of having their automaker’s captive automaker be the “supplier of choice” for remotely controlled, er, I mean, autonomous vehicle tech.

    (To be fair, Geely is one of the few private auto companies in China, but the Party has the power if it comes to it.)

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    How does it do against women jaywalking with bicycles across dark roads at 10 o’clock at night?

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Good luck getting in and out of parking garages.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Looks like they’re about to attempt SAE Level 3 autonomy.

    https://www.nhtsa.gov/technology-innovation/automated-vehicles-safety

    As a design engineer, I wonder when these contraptions will be able to conceal their sensors within the vehicle’s confines. There must be a performance advantage by having the goods packaged on top of the roof, which makes me think they won’t work as well when they are built in. That will be a real challenge.

    Tesla thinks they already have enough sensors onboard, but I don’t believe that.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    Says Volvo airily and without the slightest amount of actual backup information: “By the middle of the next decade we expect one-third of all cars we sell to be fully autonomous.” And highly capable of negotiating long ess-curved driveways, both forwards AND, drum roll, please! BACKwards, even in the rain! And under a canopy of trees. “Look Ma! No hands!”

    Going around “expecting” things is not a technical progress report. It’s a sop for partner Uber’s investors to keep them from clamoring for instant payback, no more. “This’ll get us six more years, Anders!” is about the long and the short of it. Presumably Li Shufu approves of the vagueness on the Volvo side, who knows?

    The cheapjack sensors already in most cars are part of the forthcoming autonomous driving “suite” driving the software. Boy, do those sensors need to get much better than they are and in a hurry if Volvo is to meet its stated expectations. Or anyone else’s for that matter. None of the current sensors are built to any standard nor are installed to a common standard which optimizes their immunity to rain or flying sticky leaves. Just go and test drive a few cars, and see the pathetic state of the art.

    Then, having actual decent reliable weatherproof sensors properly mounted to feed the computing maw, the programmers are faced with writing mountains of software for what they have all essentially discovered is a chaotic system with little order. Harder, much harder, than the Silicon Valley nerds thought a few years ago when they figured it would all be a cakewalk. Then when they got deeper into it, oops, they discovered reality. All except Tesla, where cameras and radar are more than enough for Musk’s fevered brain and delusions.

    Next thing you know, all these hotshots will rediscover rails. Or more likely, order us to change our infrastructure for a more ordered one, so as to remove a degree of freedom from their chance of pulling off the next to impossible. The whole idea calls for some sort of bio-computing that can cut through millions of lines of inefficient code to get to the obvious answer in each driving situation. Like a human can, or probably even a bird brain.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Well said.

    • 0 avatar
      TimK

      “Even a bird brain”

      Toward the end of WWII several projects were underway to use trained pigeons as the eyes and brain of a “smart bomb”. The birds were trained to peck at controls that steered fins at the back of the bomb and guide it to the target.

      BTW, what ever happened to that Nissan experiment where they planned to use humans in a remote facility to control vehicles on the road? Sounded like a dumb idea due to the unavoidable latency, but in the arena of autonomous driving, idiocy and innovation are often commingled.

    • 0 avatar

      I concur. Don’t see the XC90 maneuver flawlessly in dense city traffic. Will the robo Volvo know the difference between someone who is waving ‘hello’ to a friend on the other side of the road, or who is indicating “watch out, I’m about to cross” or… who is out to pester the Volvo, make it continue its journey staccato-style?

  • avatar

    Unsafe at Any Speed

  • avatar

    Do you see this one maneuver flawlessly in dense city traffic?… Me neither. Will the robo Volvo know the difference between someone who is waving ‘hello’ to a friend on the other side of the road, or who is indicating “watch out, I’m about to cross” or… who is out to pester the Volvo, make it continue its journey staccato-style?


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