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My New Volvo Is Driving Itself… Woo Hoo

Tired of sitting in traffic, inching forward every few minutes? Soon you may be able to read a book, check your email or just daydream while your car does the driving. Autonomous cars are coming sooner than anyone thought. While not exactly a driverless car, Volvo has announced that by 2014 their next-generation models will be able to drive themselves, as long as you are going below 31 mph. Calling it Traffic Jam Assistance, these full-autonomous vehicles will be able to handle the gas, brake and steering in low speed situations.

While the car can only drive itself at slow speeds this is actually a great big deal.  The new Volvos will be the first production cars that automatically handle the steering, braking and throttle. There are already numerous driver assist options available that take advantage of camera and radar technologies to help drivers keep their car on the road. Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings and auto braking are just a few examples, but Volvo will be the first production car that ties them all together to make the vehicle autonomous, in low speed situations.

Volvo’s Traffic Jam Assistance will be activated with just a push of a button. If a driver decides to take control back they simply have to make an input through the steering wheel, brake or throttle. When the system is activated it maintains a set distance from the car in front by braking and accelerating as needed. It controls the steering as well, keeping the car in your lane.

While all of this is really cool, it falls short of being a fully autonomous car. The Volvo is unable to read signs or detect stoplights which a fully autonomous car would need to be able to do. It simply follows the car in front of it. No explanation is being offered as why 31 mph is the top limit for Traffic Jam Assistance but experts guess that it has to do with processing time. At higher speeds the computer processors have less time to take in all the information and make driving decisions.

Volvo has also been experimenting with autonomous highways with its SARTRE road train technology. This technology is experimenting with high-speed travel that completely takes the driver out of the equation. They recently did a test of the system in Barcelona where three autonomous cars followed a lead car for 120 miles. The big difference between this technology and Traffic Jam Assistance is that the road-train cars were communicating with each other while Traffic Jam Assistance vehicles do not talk with other cars and need a human at the wheel.

This could be the first step in the move toward fully autonomous cars. A few states have legalized these cars with Nevada being the first. Currently only prototypes are on the road with Google being the leader when it comes self-driving vehicles. The Federal government is starting to show some interest in these technologies with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) starting to research the impact of autonomous cars.

In just over a year you could let your new Volvo do the driving during your slow morning commute. Volvo is introducing Traffic Jam Assistance in certain 2014 models which will drive the car at speeds under 31 mph.