Volvo Slows Down Its Self-Driving Car Development Program

But it still wants autonomous cars eventually.

Volvo recently announced that it was handing over specially-equipped test cars to Swedish families as part of its "Drive Me" self-driving car development program. That may seem like substantial progress, but shortly after that news broke, Automotive News Europe noted that Volvo is actually behind on the goals it set a few years ago.

When Volvo announced the Drive Me pilot program in 2014, it said that 100 self-driving cars would be made available for members of the public to drive on the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, the automaker's hometown. But the actual rollout of the program has turned out to be a bit less ambitious.

The cars given to members of the public aren't autonomous. They have driver-assist systems that still require an attentive human driver, along with sensors that monitor the driver's behavior. Where Volvo previously said it would deploy 100 cars, it now says 100 people will be involved in the program over the next four years. Two families have received cars, and Volvo plans to deliver three more test cars early next year.

Volvo believes a cautious approach is the way to go, even if it means falling behind the original timeline, Marcus Rothoff, the automaker's autonomous-driving director, told Automotive News Europe. He said Volvo wants to make sure customers trust the technology, and view it as a good value. That might be difficult, considering that Volvo CEO HÃ¥kan Samuelsson has said SAE Level 4 autonomous capability could add "close to $10,000" to a car's price.

Rothoff also cited unexpected issues with hardware. Sensor technology has advanced far more quickly than Volvo anticipated, he said, and so the automaker doesn't want to pick a "sensor set" too early and risk becoming locked into obsolete technology. Developing an electrical architecture that can support autonomous-driving hardware was also more difficult than expected, Rothoff said.

Volvo does have its own prototype autonomous cars, but these won't be handed over to members of the public like the current Drive Me test cars. Participants in the Drive Me program may eventually get to test self-driving cars, but it will be done on a closed course under the supervision of Volvo personnel, not on public roads.

But Volvo hasn't given up on an autonomous production car. It plans to launch a Level 4 self-driving car by 2021. It's just that the process of getting there may be a little more involved than the company originally anticipated, and that's fine. When it comes to autonomous driving, it's likely best to err on the side of caution, rather than pushing out technology that may not be ready just to meet some arbitrary deadline.