Autonomous cars with real people on real roads in real traffic situations will be tested by Volvo in London from early next year, in what the Swedish car-maker has described as the "most ambitious" autonomous car experiment to date.
Adapted versions of Volvo's XC90 sport utility vehicle will be used in the trials equipped with additional technology enabling semi-autonomous driving. The vehicles will be able to take over driving for certain periods of time and perform actions including steering, lane changing, accelerating and braking.
Volvo, which has been known for pioneering car safety technology, hopes that driverless cars will help reduce the number of fatal car accidents and serious injuries.
"Autonomous driving (AD) represents a leap forward in car safety," said Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars. "The sooner AD cars are on the roads, the sooner lives will start being saved."
Volvo, inventor of the three-point seatbelt in 1959, has an ambitious goal of bringing the number of people killed or seriously injured in crashes involving its new vehicles to zero by 2020.
The experiment, dubbed ‘Drive Me London’, will commence in early 2017 with only a few families involved and will be expanded in 2018 to involve up to 100 semi-autonomous cars.
Volvo said that in addition to being the first autonomous car trial running on public roads and involving real drivers, the experiment will also be the most extensive autonomous driving test in the UK.
"Research in the US by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration predicts that by 2035, as a result of autonomous and connected cars, crashes will be reduced by 80 per cent,” said Peter Shaw, chief executive of Thatcham Research, which is cooperating with Volvo on the experiment.
“Additionally, if a crash unfortunately can't be avoided, then the impact speed will also drop as a result of the system's performance – reducing the severity of the crash."
In addition to improved safety, autonomous cars are expected to reduce congestion due to the optimised traffic flows, which would cut journey times for drivers, as well as reduce pollution.
"There are multiple benefits to AD cars," Samuelsson said. "That is why governments globally need to put in place the legislation and infrastructure to allow AD cars onto the streets as soon as possible. The car industry cannot do it all by itself. We need governmental help."
According to some estimates, up to 90 per cent of all accidents are caused by driver error or distraction, hence the life-saving potential of autonomous cars.
Volvo will use data from the trial to further fine-tune its autonomous driving technology before its commercial deployment in the early 2020s.
Chancellor George Osborne announced plans in March's Budget for trials which will allow driverless cars on motorways next year.
Proposals sweeping away regulations that prevent autonomous driving are expected to be brought forward this summer that would allow driverless cars to take to the roads by 2020.