Volvo Cars is working with lidar company Luminar and its autonomous driving (AD) software subsidiary Zenseact to introduce an AD feature to its next generation of fully electric cars, the automaker said on Wednesday at CES. The company aims to first introduce the feature, named "Ride Pilot," as an add-on subscription to an electric SUV that will be revealed later this year.
Ride Pilot is what Volvo is calling an "unsupervised" AD feature – meaning the car will be able to drive itself, giving passengers plenty of time to enjoy "secondary activities like reading, writing, working or socializing," according to Volvo. Luminar and Zenseact, in which Volvo owns a majority stake, have been working on building these capabilities since at least March 2021, when the two companies shared plans to combine tech and create a "holistic autonomous vehicle stack" that could be offered to other automakers. Nvidia's system-on-a-chip will power Volvo's core compute system.
Volvo is the latest automaker to create a strategy around getting commercial passenger vehicles with autonomous capabilities to market. Tesla has pushed out its misleadingly named "Autopilot" and "Full Self-Driving" software, which rely solely on cameras and computer vision tech to provide advanced driver assistance features that can handle tasks like autosteering within a clearly marked lane, traffic-aware cruise control, auto lane change, auto park, summon and traffic and stop sign control. Chinese automaker Xpeng is also rolling out its next generation of ADAS called "Xpilot," which relies on lidar, radar and cameras to provide automated navigation assisted driving from point to point based on the route set by the driver.
"The key thing here with Ride Pilot is that it's actually self driving," Martin Kristensson, Volvo's VP of digital business, told TechCrunch. "You don't have to keep your hands on the steering wheel. You don't have to look at the road ahead. You can actually eat your breakfast in the car or read a book or watch a movie and the car will drive itself. We will take liability when the car is driving itself. So I think that in that sense, it is an offer that doesn't exist in the market today."
Before Ride Pilot goes to market, the software will undergo rigorous verification and testing protocol, which includes validating the technology for safe use on highways in a number of conditions, Volvo says. Initially, Ride Pilot will be available on a limited operational design domain. Specifically, it will only operate on highways that Volvo has validated and at lower speeds.
Customers in California will be the first to experience Ride Pilot before a gradual rollout to other markets, which makes sense given the state's favorable regulatory environment to autonomous testing, sunny weather and accumulation of highways packed with cars. Los Angeles commuters apparently spend an average of 119 hours per year stuck in traffic, time Volvo thinks can be better spent.
Volvo will still need to secure permits for testing its vehicles on public roads in California, but Kristensson says the company is "in dialogue with relevant regulatory bodies, including the California DMV, to secure all necessary approvals." So far, the company is only testing Ride Pilot in Sweden with Zenseact, but it expects to receive the necessary permits to begin testing on public roads in California by the middle of the year. The regulation Volvo will need to actually implement this tech on a commercial scale is not yet mature enough for what the industry is offering. For example, California currently has laws to prohibit drivers from using their phones while driving, which might be a snag in Volvo's plans to entice drivers to subscribe to Ride Pilot so they can scroll through Twitter or respond to emails while the car drives itself.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles did not respond to TechCrunch's request for information in time.
Volvo did not share how much the Ride Pilot subscription would cost, nor how much the SUV might sell for, but Kristensson did say the car would be around the same price of the 2022 Volvo XC90, which has a starting price of around $50,000. Whether or not customers choose to add on the software, their vehicles will be built with all of the sensors needed to make AD and ADAS capabilities happen. Chief among those sensors is Luminar's Iris lidar sensor, which is more seamlessly integrated into the roofline of the vehicle rather than attached to the rooftop like a glowing jewel. In addition, the new SUV will come with five radars, eight cameras and 16 ultrasonic sensors.
"Volvo decided to standardize the hardware meaning that all the vehicles, whether people are subscribing to Ride Pilot or not, will have the hardware that's possible to launch this software, and also possible to collect the data that we need to monitor and make sure we're safe and able to launch," Zenseact CEO Ödgärd Andersson told TechCrunch. "So every car will have a basic level of safety, which is like helping you do emergency braking or steering, and that's standard. Now with this new level of technology and the lidar to actually take it to a whole new level, on top of that there's the cruise functionality to assist while you're driving that's taken to a new level because we have better sensing and compute."
As with Tesla's FSD, the software itself and updates can be sent over-the-air to both users in new markets as well as existing users in order to continuously ensure redundancy.
Volvo hasn't yet shared details about the design of its upcoming electric SUV, but Kristensson said its concept EV revealed in July called "Concept Recharge," which looks a bit like a crossover with a flat floor, a glass ceiling and rear suicide doors, is "a good indication of what the actual car will look like." Volvo is partnering with companies like Northvolt, which makes EV batteries, Google and Luminar to build out this EV, as well as future vehicles.
During CES, the automaker also shared plans to implement Qualcomm's Snapdragon digital cockpit infotainment center into the new electric SUV. Volvo also announced on Wednesday more details of its partnership with Google, like an integration with Google Assistant-enabled devices that will allow users to do things like ask Google to warm up their car, as well as enabling YouTube to be downloaded to the vehicles.
"We see that drivers will spend more time in the car not driving, while electrical cars are charging and you're waiting for it to charge, or maybe in a situation with an autonomous vehicle where you're riding and relaxing rather than driving, so we want to enable more digital services in the car," said Kristensson.
The suite of digital services that Volvo is building through strategic partnerships give Volvo a chance to build out its subscription model and learn how customers want to interface with these new products.
"We will see a lot of services and experiences coming through to our consumers in the next year that they can actually subscribe to rather than buy it upfront," Anne-Mette Nygaard, head of digital consumer products, told TechCrunch. "So more flexible ownership and more transparency directly with our consumers is the way to go."