Volvo’s Pilot Assist Promises Swede Freedom
The XC90 embodies the Nordic approach to a self-driving car.
There's no doubt the new 2016 Volvo XC90 SUV trades strongly on its Swedish heritage: Tiny Swedish flags adorn the upholstery seams. The optional premium audio system can be configured to sound like the concert hall in Gothenburg, the port city where Volvo is headquartered. Even the headlamps are said to be shaped like the hammer of Thor, the ancient Norse god of thunder.
But nothing about the XC90 is quite as Nordic as its approach to the question of the self-driving car.
First, a little background: As Finnish author Anu Partanen contends in her new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, despite American stereotypes of northern European governments as “nanny states,” a strong undercurrent of self-reliance and individualism flows through Nordic culture.
While benefits like state-funded childcare and medical services might seem generous, they also allow Swedes, Finns, Danes, Norwegians, and Icelanders to take risks without the fear of disproportionate consequences.
I had Partanen’s theory in mind when I took the XC90 for a long drive. Somewhere between the congestion of Boston and the wide-open roads of its suburbs, it became clear that Volvo’s on-board active safety technology wasn’t meant to absolve my responsibilities as a driver, but instead aimed to keep me from hurting myself or other people.
In other words, the XC90 didn’t stop me from doing something stupid like fiddling with the navigation system, texting behind the wheel, or speeding—but it did its best to ensure nobody would die as a result.
I was clearly on my own in the city. Yes, the car had pedestrian detection and collision avoidance, but it lingered quietly in the background—less a threat of punishment than a promise to keep everyone safe. The infotainment system didn’t lock me out while the car was in motion. Similarly, parallel parking assistance guided me into a tight spot, but ultimately put me in charge of the gas and brake.
On the highway, I had to double check to make sure the XC90’s lane-keep assist was even active. Other cars encourage distraction, letting the driver go hands-free, bouncing the car off lane lines like a two-ton game of Pong. But the XC90 knows how to deal with moral hazard. It grabs the wheel at the last possible second, just when it feels like everything is about to go wrong. If that happens too often, a warning on the dashboard pops up that reminds the driver to pay attention—or get off the road before somebody gets hurt.
Even the XC90’s semi-autonomous driving mode—called Pilot Assist—is designed to reduce stress rather than discharge duties. Fine print aside, Tesla’s Autopilot entices drivers with a sci-fi fantasy of taking a nap or watching a movie while commuting to work. By comparison, Volvo’s Pilot Assist embraces its limitations with the barely-contained glee of a smug, sensible Swede.
Indeed, the man who leads Volvo’s crash avoidance research team told The Verge that Tesla’s Autopilot is an “unsupervised wannabe,” which promises more than it can deliver.
On the other hand, Pilot Assist makes very specific promises: It will steer, accelerate, and brake as long as you have a hand on the wheel, are stuck behind another vehicle, and are traveling under 30 MPH on a well-marked road. If traffic lets up, or if you start air drumming along with a Tove Lo remix, the XC90 will flash warning messages and beep until you regain control of the vehicle.
Just as weeks of paternity leave don’t guarantee that little Sven won’t grow up to be a delinquent, the XC90’s host of safety technologies aren’t there to release the driver from personal responsibility. Instead, they’re there to make it as easy as possible to be a good driver.
The world’s happiest people tend to live in Nordic countries, and a week spent with the XC90 explained why. Yes, I got 316 horsepower to enjoy on an open road—but active safety tech kept me from accidentally killing someone on the way to the grocery store. I felt anxiety melt away whenever I got to use Pilot Assist in a traffic jam. And knowing that sensors would keep me from bashing in the bumper while parking, I was less averse to squeezing into a tight spot.
Someday, every car—even a Volvo—will drive itself. Until then, the XC90 offers all the benefits of driving your own car, without as many burdens. If that’s your idea of freedom, maybe you’re more Nordic than you think.
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