Here's What Happens When You Let Your Volvo Drive Itself
Volvo's foray into semi autonoumous driving software is an exercise in restraint.
The 2018 Volvo S90 T6 Inscription is Volvo's mid level trim of their spacious tech filled S90 flag ship sedan. This sedan features comforts like a heated steering wheel, active air suspension, and a little semi-autonomous driving system called Pilot Assist II. To properly test out this new system I took our S90 press car on a 300 mile road trip to New York's Finger Lakes region to get a feel for the future of Volvo's driving software.
What Is Pilot Assist?
Volvo's Pilot Assist II system uses the S90's front facing camera and radar to judge the distance of cars in front of you while using other sensors to keep the car in the middle of the lane. The system uses the throttle, brakes, and steering wheel to guide the car down the road like it's a person but it's a car. Pilot Assist II can operate up to speeds of 80mph vs the old top speed of 30mph for Pilot Assist I.
To activate Pilot Assist, all you do is use the controls on the left of the steering wheel to select Pilot Assist over normal adaptive cruise control, select a speed, and you're off. The system will let you know if steering assist is active by illuminating a green steering wheel incon in the digital gauge cluster. If the system does not detect lines Pilot Assist goes on stand by, reverting to a more traditional rear guided cruise control role, and the wheel icon turns gray.
Volvo's training literature explains that the system requires constant driver steering input to engage the system, but I found that the system will operate hands free for exactly 18 seconds on a straight road. Once the car realizes you've given it too much control it will demand steering input and the clock starts over.
What's It Like To Use Pilot Assist?
I found that constant human steering input is the best way to use this system. The wheel gently turns in your hands but makes some questionable steering decisions. Pilot assist's goal is to keep you in the middle of the painted road way lines and at a preselected distance from the car in front of you. This clear mission sounds good on paper but in practice it can cause a few issues.
While using Pilot Assist the car can easily negotiate gradual curves on highway but its lane management decisions are questionable at times. The Pilot Assist will sometimes ping-pong between lanes on wider highways and takes some time to settle down before proceeding on a straight path.
Pilot Assist shines in stop and go traffic where it will take the car from a speed of up to 80mph and down to a dead stop all dependent on the car in front of you. This means you can select a comfortable cruising speed and the car can negotiate just about any traffic stitauion with a little driver involvement.
Pilot Assist II impressed with its ability to handle curves and arrow straight highways with minimal driver involvement but it has one crucial flaw. Since the system relies on the lines of a highway it uses these guides to get far closer to tractor trailers than I'm comfortable with. The cure is a little steering input that allows you to guide the car toward a different portion of the lane with little drama.
Does Pilot Assist Really Make Driving Easier?
Volvo S90 T6 Inscription
Besides the slight lane management hiccups I found this system very helpful. I never fought the system and it felt like a helping hand during my long highway stint driving to the Finger Lakes in New York. This wasn't some do everything for you hands free system were led to believe exists. Instead Pilot Assist is a totally reasonable application of early autonomous tech, i's helpful without biting off more than it can handle.
Pilot Assist knows that it's not ready to drive the car all by its self so it relies on your help. The need for constant human steering input shows that Volvo it correctly managing the expectations of the driver. Volvo knows that cars are not ready to drive safely with a totally handsfree system. You'd expect the company that invented the seat belt to be very cautious with new tech like autonomy and Pilot Assist is the perfect example of restraint in autonomy.