I’ve borrowed a 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country for an entire month, and will document my experience every week. Last week I drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico and back for a seven-hour highway test of the V90’s Pilot Assist semi-autonomous technology (and afterwards I stopped by an off-road driving park to get some cool pictures!).
Though Tesla’s Autopilot is perhaps the best-known semi-autonomous technology on the market today, a number of other companies currently or will soon offer something similar. Volvo is one of those, and the V90 Cross Country wagon is equipped with the second-generation of Volvo’s Pilot Assist technology.
Pilot Assist is two technologies working together to make driving a little bit easier: it takes Volvo’s existing adaptive cruise control and combines it with a steering assist that keeps the car between the lines on a well-marked roadway. That makes it a SAE Level 2 technology and it works quite well, as long as you use it in the right place.
In simple terms, the car can keep the vehicle within its lane and handle steering tasks at speeds below 80 mph. Like the systems in cars from Tesla and Mercedes, Volvo’s Pilot Assist does not handle everything. Drivers are still required to pay attention and make quick decisions if something unexpected happens.
In my experience, Pilot Assist works best on wide-open, largely straight roads like interstate highways or the US highways typically found in rural areas. These roads tend to be well-marked and largely free of crossing traffic because intersections are rare.
Once the standard cruise control activated by pressing the center button on the directional pad on the left side of the steering wheel, Pilot Assist is then turned on by pressing the right arrow on that same directional pad. If all is well, and the car’s on board cameras can see the road markings, a small icon of a green steering wheel appears on the instrument cluster and in the heads-up display.
From there, the car can maintain speed with a normal cruise control system and, thanks to the adaptive cruise control that Volvo has offered for years, can also match speeds with the car in front. It can even come to a complete halt in stop-and-go traffic. The Volvo system will require interaction from the driver if the car comes to a stop for more than a few seconds, either by pressing the “resume” button on the steering wheel (it looks like an arrow going in a circle) or by gently touching the gas pedal.
Along with maintaining speed, the car will turn the steering wheel to keep itself within lane markings, even on turns — though the system is super aggressive about requiring interaction from the driver.
While Tesla’s Autopilot allows the driver to go for more than a minute without interaction, depending on the situation (in stop-and-go traffic at 5 mph, Autopilot can go for quite a while without requiring the driver to touch the wheel), Volvo’s system is much more insistent.
Like with similar systems, Volvo’s Pilot Assist is built so the driver doesn’t have to do quite as much to physically drive the car while still remaining fully in charge of what’s happening. The safety-obsessed Volvo engineers really want the driver to keep at least one hand on the wheel, ready to take full control if necessary, and will periodically (every 10 to 15 seconds based on my experience, though I haven’t used a stopwatch to time it) use a visual alert on the instrument cluster and heads-up display to request the driver move the wheel slightly to show that you’re still there. If you ignore that, it turns down the radio and begins insistently bonging.
Keep ignoring it, and the car eventually turns the system off entirely. If there’s a medical emergency, for example, the other safety systems (including things like lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking) will remain active.
I found that if I keep my hand lightly on the wheel, even as the car handles most of the actual steering, that’s enough to make the system happy.
Volvo notes that Pilot Assist shouldn’t be used in slippery conditions and that it will not be aware of things like people or animals (though other Volvo safety systems may react to those), and that it will not react to stationary objects or vehicles crossing its path.
In my driving, when used correctly, I found that long drives were a bit easier on my eyes and my brain, as I basically monitored the car to make sure everything was going well, and I didn’t need to correct the path of the vehicle within its lane or adjust the speed often at all.
Volvo has a number of autonomous projects in the works, including its Drive Me pilot in several countries that should start later this year, a partnership with Uber, and new, more capable versions of the Pilot Assist system that’s in the V90.
But, for now, if you commute in highway stop-and-go traffic or go on long, interstate-road trips — and understand the current system’s limitations — Pilot Assist can make your drive a lot smoother and less tiring.
If you have questions about the Volvo V90 Cross Country, please reach out in the comments or via email (email@example.com) and let me know what you’d like to know. Next week, I’m going to collect all the questions I’ve received and cover them in one giant reader Q&A.
Photography by Jordan Golson / The Verge