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Meet the heroes of autonomous driving

Who will be the heroes of the autonomous driving revolution – engineers, road planners, tech companies? For Volvo Cars, the true pioneers will be the families that test the technology as part of their everyday lives. People such as the Hain family from Gothenburg…

BILL DUNN, MARCH 2017

Paula Hain

“If our car today was self-driving I would be able to talk with my parents a lot more,” says Filippa Hain, 16. “I could have them help me with my homework in the car – we could have normal family conversations without them having to be focused on the road.” This, for Volvo, is what technology should be about – strengthening human relationships and making life less complicated. The Hain family will get the chance to experience this for themselves when they take delivery of an autonomous XC90 as part of Volvo Cars’ Drive Me trial later this year. They are the first people confirmed for the trial and their experiences will influence how Volvo develops its autonomous driving technology.
 

The Hains, long-time Volvo owners from the company’s hometown in Gothenburg, emailed Volvo as soon as they heard about Drive Me. They are a family that embraces new technology and values Volvo’s progressive and caring approach. Mother and management consultant Paula Hain admits that, while she is excited about taking part in the trial, her friends and extended family were a little concerned when they first heard about it. “They wanted to know if it’s safe. Especially my mum!” As father Alex Hain says: “When I let go of the controls for the first time it will be difficult. But I love technology and I’m pretty sure that Volvo wouldn’t let one of these cars on the road if it wasn’t safe.”
 

IT manager Alex is looking forward to the benefits that autonomous driving will bring: “I think a self-driving car would add one thing to my life – and that’s time.” Volvo has already introduced Skype for Business, which makes it easy to make and receive conference calls in your car. In the autonomous Volvo of the future you’ll be able to able to spend your time in your car even more productively – catching up on emails, reading a book or even watching a movie. With the whole process monitored by what Volvo calls the ‘Autonomous Driving Brain’, you will be able to relax while the car does the driving for you.
 

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Video: Trent Victor explains how the Drive Me project will work

The Hains will be loaned a new XC90 that, in addition to the cameras and sensors required for autonomous driving, will be fitted with seven interior cameras to record the family’s reactions to travelling in a self-driving car. In effect, the Hains will provide the missing piece of the autonomous jigsaw – it’s fine on paper, but how do real people react to this initially unsettling experience?
 

The insights the Hains will provide will be invaluable. “Developing autonomous driving is about understanding people’s needs and their expectations,” says Trent Victor, senior technical leader, crash avoidance, Volvo Cars. “Drive Me is all about learning from people, to make autonomous cars safe and legal before their introduction on the market. It’s about collecting real data from real people on real roads.”
 

This people-focused view is pure Volvo. The company believes that the industry has become inward-focused in its rush to develop the technology required for autonomous cars, and forgotten the vital ingredient – the people who will use them. “To our knowledge, no one else is developing autonomous drive from a human-centric standpoint,” says Henrik Green, senior vice president, research and development, Volvo Car Group.

“Developing autonomous driving is about understanding people’s needs and their expectations.”
 

TRENT VICTOR
Senior technical leader, crash avoidance, Volvo Cars

Smilla Hain

The Volvo Drive Me project will involve up to 100 people leasing autonomous cars to use on routes on the ring road around the city of Gothenburg, in real traffic. And then Volvo will move the project on to London, and a city in China. Volvo believes that real testing, on real roads, is the right way to ensure autonomous driving is as beneficial as possible, and that there is no time to waste. The Hains' youngest daughter agrees: “I think it’s very cool that the future is actually happening now,” says 13-year-old Smilla.
 

The Hains are the first to enrol, and Volvo wants to encourage a wide range of people to follow. Marcus Rothoff, leader of the Drive Me project, says: “We don’t just want our friends, or people who are really positive about autonomous driving. We need a wide distribution of age, gender, car usage and lifestyle so we can make sure we have technology that works for all future users of self-driving cars.
 

“We need people from different life stages, people who are tired after a hard day working, people who need to pick up their kids from school, people who need to do stuff on the way home. We need to think about all the scenarios that can happen during a typical commute.”
 

So if you’re in the Gothenburg area later this year, take a second look at the Volvo XC90s you see. Inside them there might be the pioneers of a new era of travel – real families that are helping to change the relationship between cars and people for the better.