Volvo is on the road to self-driving vehicles. Its new traffic jam assistance system, in which the car automatically follows the vehicle in front in slow-moving queues up to 50km/h, will be ready for production in 2014.
"This technology makes driving more relaxed in the kind of monotonous queuing that is a less attractive part of daily driving in urban areas. It offers you a safe, effortless drive in slow traffic," says Peter Mertens, the company's senior vice-president for research and development.
The system is an evolution of the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping technology, which was introduced in the new Volvo V40 earlier this year.
The driver activates the traffic jam aid by pushing a button. The engine, brakes and steering respond automatically.
Adaptive cruise control enables safe, comfortable driving by automatically maintaining a set gap to the vehicle in front; steering is controlled at the same time.
"The car follows the vehicle in front in the same lane. However, it is always the driver who is in charge. He or she can take back control of the car at any time," says Mertens.
As Aucklanders know only too well, slow-moving queues are part of urban commuting. Americans spend more than 100 hours a year commuting to work, according to the US Census Bureau's American community survey. This is more than the average two weeks of holidays (80 hours) many Americans have per year.
Drivers in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles spend even longer times queuing to and from work every day.
"The situation is of course similar, or even worse, in major urban areas all over the world. Our aim with the traffic jam assistance is to make commuting a bit less stressful for the driver," says Mertens.
Autonomous driving - with steering, acceleration and/or braking automatically controlled by a vehicle that requires very little human interaction - is a major focus of Volvo's development.
"Our aim is to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving by moving beyond concepts and pioneering technologies that will reach actual customers. Making these features reliable and easy to use is crucial to boosting customer confidence in self-driving cars," says Mertens.
The low-speed traffic jam system is the company's second technology for autonomous driving in a few weeks. The company recently demonstrated the SARTRE project (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), which focuses on platooning in highway and motorway traffic at speeds of up to 90km/h.
"Platooning" allows vehicles to drive much closer together than under manual drivers. Each lane can carry at least twice as much traffic as it can today. This should make it possible to greatly reduce highway congestion as well as aerodynamic drag, which can lead to major reductions in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.
Volvo's focus on designing cars around people includes investigating consumer attitudes towards self-driving cars.
Last year Volvo invited a number of premium-car owners to evaluate future technologies at the company's test track, including an early prototype of traffic jam assistance.
One commented: "A perfect support for making commuting less stressful. It will take away the cramps and knee pain that I get when constantly having to adjust speed and distance in slow-moving queues."
Traffic jam technology will be part of Volvo's new scalable product architecture, which will be introduced in 2014.
"SPA is a stand-alone Volvo project that will enable us to take the company's technological future into our own hands.
"It will give us a high degree of commonality and the right scale of economy to be competitive in the future," says Mertens.