Volvo announced that it will unveil its new flagship electric vehicle, the EX90 SUV, on November 9th. The EX90 is meant to replace the company’s current flagship, the gas-powered XC90 SUV, as Volvo transitions to an all-electric car manufacturer by 2030.
In the run-up before the announcement, the Swedish automaker teased a number of interesting features, including long-range lidar and in-car sensors to detect when a driver may be distracted or intoxicated.
The new technology, some of which will come standard in the vehicle, is designed to boost Volvo’s reputation for safety at a time when the auto industry is leaning more on high-powered sensors and AI-powered software to prevent fatal traffic collisions.
“I think we’ve become much more of a software enabled company than many of our competitors,” Volvo CEO Jim Rowan told The Verge.
Volvo says the new EV will feature “one of the most advanced sensor sets on the market,” including eight cameras, five radars, 16 ultrasonic sensors, and a cutting-edge lidar sensor. A lidar sensor mounted on the roof of the EX90 will aid the driver in avoiding exterior obstacles, while two cameras inside the vehicle will monitor the driver’s eye behavior to determine whether they are paying attention or even perhaps impaired.
Volvo says the EX90 has “one of the most advanced sensor sets on the market”
Depending on the driver’s attention, the EX90 will be able to take action when needed. If the driver is distracted, the cameras will pick up on it and the vehicle will issue a series of warnings intended to bring the focus back on the road. If the driver still isn’t responding, the vehicle will begin to slow down, eventually coming to a full stop on the side of the road and activating the hazard lights.
“Our research shows that by simply observing where the driver is looking and how often and for how long their eyes are closed, we can tell a lot about the state of the driver,” said Emma Tivesten, senior technical expert, Volvo Cars Safety Center, in a statement. “By basing its calculations on our research findings, the sensing system allows our cars to identify whether the driver’s ability is impaired, perhaps due to drowsiness, distraction or other causes for inattention and to offer extra assistance in a way that best suits the situation.”
“Even when you’re at your worst, the car still at its best,” Rowan said.
Volvo has been talking about using in-car cameras to prevent drunk driving for years now, with the automaker previously predicting a release of the technology by 2020. The company has pinned much of its reputation on the safety of its premium vehicles, including be one of the first OEMs to impose a 112 mph (180 km/h) speed cap in all of its vehicles. And with the release of the EX90 SUV, Volvo hopes to bolster that reputation with a suite of new features.
“The sensing system allows our cars to identify whether the driver’s ability is impaired”
Some critics argue that the drivers can still get distracted by technology designed to assist them in their driving, especially system’s that are over-reliant on notifications and alerts to make sure drivers are staying alert. But Rowan said that if Volvo’s driver assist system is too distracting for drivers, they can simply turn it off.
“At the end of the day, it’s got to add value to the customer,” he said. “If it doesn’t add value there’s a toggle switch to turn it off That’s really the acid test.”
Lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging,” is a key ingredient in autonomous driving. The laser sensor uses near-infrared light to detect the shapes of objects, which helps autonomous vehicles “see” other road users like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, all without the help of GPS or a network connection. The laser sensor used to be very expensive, with one company selling units for $75,000 each, but that price has come down over the years. Luminar, the Florida-based company that is supplying Volvo’s lidar, has said it hopes to price its sensors at $1,000 per unit, with the goal of getting that number down to $500.
But while lidar is ubiquitous in the AV industry, it is less common in passenger vehicles. Volvo is one of the few automakers to include the high-powered sensor, calling it an essential ingredient in its quest to completely eliminate traffic fatalities. The EX90’s lidar will have a range of 250 meters with the ability to detect “something as small and dark as a tire on a black road 120 meters ahead,” all while driving at highway speeds, Volvo said.
The EX90 will also be the first model to feature Volvo’s new advanced driver-assist system, Ride Pilot, which will enable the vehicle to drive itself without driver input on the highway. Volvo officials have said that Ride Pilot will not require drivers to watch the road while activated. The feature will go live in California as a subscription service, pending approval from state regulators.
The EX90 will also be the first model to feature Ride Pilot
The EX90’s precursor is the Concept Recharge, which was unveiled last year as a “manifesto” for Volvo’s future. The vehicle featured carriage-style doors that opened up to a roomy interior, where the lack of an internal combustion engine meant more space for the driver and passengers. (Officials confirmed that the doors would most likely not make it into the production model.)
Volvo has said it plans to sell 600,000 EVs by the middle of the decade and will build a battery manufacturing facility in Europe by 2026. The company is working with Swedish partner Northvolt on a new generation of batteries with higher energy density designed to be integrated as a structural element of the vehicle. The new batteries, due after 2025, will enable a longer driving range between charges — up to 625 miles (1,006km) — and much faster charging times.