This month I’m testing the 2017 Volvo S90. A luxury sedan the Swedish car maker is producing to spar with BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. It has all the country club perks one expects in this class, the supple leather interior, the swish stereo, mood lighting and self-parking. It will also spot a moose on the road and apply the brakes if you don’t, detect if the car is drifting toward a ditch and ratchet it back on course, and it will do the driving for you if you ask nicely. Loaded, it’s all yours for $73, 925.
Volvo calls the self-driving function Pilot Assist II, and like much in this car it is easy to figure out and use. Push a button and a little green steering wheel appears on the instrument screen in front of you and the S90 steers, brakes and maintains the speed selected. If your hands are off the wheel it will pilot the car solo for 15 seconds before deactivating and alerting you to put your hands on the wheel. If you rest your hands lightly on the wheel, it will continue driving itself, as it monitors the traffic in front and sides, the lane markings, and perhaps the sudden appearance of large animals.
I tested it in traffic on the 401, and on secondary roads. It feels weird at first with the steering rocking gently back and forth to keep the S90 in its lane. In heavy traffic I felt the need to babysit it, but with space on the road the performance feels more natural and confidence inducing.
Everyday there are new claims about the imminent arrival of self-driving, or autonomous cars, but even the people who make them disagree about when if ever they will dominate the roadways.
“I think the autonomous car is the biggest shift in the industry since we moved from horse to cars,” says David Paterson VP of Corporate and Environmental Affairs for General Motors Canada. Paterson made the comment to automotive journalists at the recent testing sessions to pick the Car of the Year awards. Paterson seems to believe full throttle in the trajectory of self-driving cars, but others who joined him on a panel to discuss the future of the industry were reserved.
“We have to wait for the first lawsuit to determine who’s at fault in an accident,” said Ted Lancaster, VP of Kia Canada. Autonomous driving he believes is quite far off. And the President of Jaguar Land Rover Canada, Wolfgang Hoffman dared to suggest that the money and motivation to develop self driving cars would be better spent on educating the public on how to be better drivers. “The one who sits behind the wheel is responsible,” he said.
One also has to wonder if relinquishing so much control to the car is eroding our driving skills. Once you get used to a backup camera, how do you feel in a car without one, and is blind spot detection taking over for proper use of mirrors and awareness of what’s going on around the car?
These are all provocative issues to ponder while driving the Volvo S90, a car stuffed with safety features. The S90 is right in line with the trend to make the car a sanctuary and a fortress from all that can go wrong on the road. But with all the emphasis on technology is something being lost?
“We don’t talk so much about the fun of driving,” said JLR’s Hoffman rather sadly. So true. Was the S90 fun to drive? Not really. But it’s a capable and luxurious cocoon, exactly what many people desire.
Written by: Kathy Renwald