I think we can all agree that the push toward self-driving cars is happening quickly, and Volvo is preparing to push it to the next level with a big public pilot program starting in 2017: 100 "Drive Me" cars on the streets of its hometown, Gothenburg, Sweden.

We've all seen demonstrations of cars driving by themselves, but it’s usually under highly controlled circumstances. The Volvo project is unique and a big step forward because of its scale, and because it will be taking place on the public streets, with regular commuter drivers, in rush-hour traffic.

Dr. Peter Mertens, Volvo’s senior vice president, research and development, is pretty pointed about this. “We’re setting up a complete system; it’s a holistic view we’re taking. It’s really easy to build a car that can go around a race track at 250 kilometers an hour [as Audi has done] or put together a living room on wheels [Mercedes] and pretend that this is how cars will look in 10 years.”

By 2017, Swedish customers will be reading magazines on their commute

By 2017, Swedish customers will be reading magazines on the commute to work. (Photo: Volvo)

To be fair, both Audi and Mercedes are very serious about autonomous driving — Audi, for instance, recently sent an A7 from San Francisco to Las Vegas on auto pilot. But Mertens is right that to put cars in regular traffic “takes a lot of technology, sensors — and redundancy.” In other words, backup systems have to have backup systems.

Erik Coelingh, a Volvo technical specialist in active safety, says “the key to success is combining sensors, computers and the car’s chassis system in a clever way. It can’t be just one single magical component — it has to be a combination of all of them — teamwork!”

He adds, “Making this complex system 99 percent reliable is not good enough. You need to get much closer to 100 percent before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic. We have a similar approach to that of the aircraft industry: Our fail-operational architecture includes backup systems.” For instance, there’s two independent braking systems to ensure the car stops if one fails.”

Coelingh points to the advanced active safety package on the new XC90 as a key step in getting to autonomy.

An Autopilot car on the roads around Gothenburg

An Autopilot car on the roads around Gothenburg. (Photo: Volvo)

I know just what he’s talking about, because I was in Spain test driving the XC90 this week. At one point, my co-driver, Jonathan Schultz, turned on the lane-keeping assist and took his hands off the wheel, and the car did a very good impression of a self-driving car, carefully maintaining its position in the center of the lane. Add in the self-parking feature and adaptive cruise control, and you’re already halfway there.

There are still obstacles, which is why Volvo’s program is still a work in progress. Weather has been a problem for a number of companies, including Google. Coelingh said that cameras can get blinded by the sun, and that’s why at least two are needed. Heavy snowstorms will erase all-important lane markers, and Coelingh said at the point the self-driving system is going to have to be turned off.

Google has had trouble with self-driving cars in bad weather, as has Volvo.

Google has had trouble with self-driving cars in bad weather, as has Volvo. (Photo: Google)

On Volvo’s self-driving car are boatloads of technology, including:

Sensors. These help give a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings, and its exact position. A high-definition 3-D digital map is continuously updated with real-time data.

Combined radar and cameras. The 76 GHz frequency modulated continuous wave radar and windshield-based camera are borrowed from the XC90. They read the road and traffic signals, and can detect obstacles in the road.

Surround radars and cameras. There are four radar units, one at each corner of the car, and they sweep both right and left to detect potential obstacles in all directions. Also keeping an eye out are four cameras, two under the outside rear-view mirrors, one in the rear bumper and one in the grille. Watching lane markings is one thing they do.

Multiple beam laser scanner. This guy lives in front, below the air intake, and it can see objects in front of the car and distinguish between them.

The Drive Me car is also connected to a traffic control center via the cloud, and if conditions warrant, the self-driving system can be remotely shut off.

There’s more: A trifocal camera (behind the upper windshield), looking out for pedestrians; long-range radar (two behind the rear bumper), and great for seeing cars approaching from behind); ultrasonic sensors (12 around the car, handling low-speed activity); high-performance positioning GPS (placing the car in relation to its surroundings); and a high-def 3-D digital map that gives the car all sorts of useful road information.

I say, bring it on. Programs like this will show us — all too clearly — what works and what doesn’t in the big push toward autonomous driving. Here's Volvo's entire press conference on video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Volvo's self-driving car: Ready for the a.m. commute
A fleet of 100 autonomous cars will be hitting the roads in 2017.