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Volvo's Magnetic Roads Might Make Self-driving Cars Viable

Volvo’s Magnetic Roads Might Make Self-driving Cars Viable
Jordan Perch

Self-Driving Tech Closer Than You Might Think

Volvo is one of the car makers that have been putting a lot of effort into the development of autonomous driving technology, along with Toyota, Nissan, and General Motors, as well as tech company Google. The Swedish automaker hopes to become a leader in driver-less cars, and in addition to working on cars that can drive themselves, Volvo is also focusing self-parking technology and other projects that are supposed to provide the necessary infrastructure for self-driving cars.

In order for these cars to be able to safely move on roadways without the help of a driver, their position needs to be monitored at all times, and the prototypes that have been built so far have employed GPS and cameras for that purpose. Now, Volvo believes that GPS and cameras have limited abilities for determining the exact position of autonomous cars when they are on the road, since they can’t work properly in poor weather conditions, such as in thick fog or when it’s snowing heavily. Also, an accurate GPS signal is hard to get when a car goes through a tunnel or in mountainous areas.


So What’s The Solution?

That’s why the company has been trying to come up with another solution that would eliminate the drawbacks of the technology that is being used at the moment. They have been working on a magnetic road project, which involves the use of magnets to help self-driving cars to monitor their position. Volvo has been testing its magnetic roadway technology on a test track that it has built specifically for this purpose in the city of Hällered, Sweden. They tested two potential solutions – magnets installed on the road surface, and magnets embedded eight inches below the surface, and found that surface magnets are more effective, and that they are easier to install.

The ferrite magnets’ dimensions are 40mm by 15mm, and they were positioned in the middle of the lane. In order for the car to be able to determine its position, it is fitted with magnetic field sensors, that help it follow the pattern of magnets on the road and stay in its lane. Volvo used a modified S60 to test the technology, which was driven at different speeds. They say that the magnets provide positioning accuracy of about 4 inches, which is certainly not ideal, but it should improve as Volvo develops its technology further. In any case, it’s better than what GPS and radar sensors can provide.

When compared to Google’s self-driving car, and other similar autonomous vehicles, Volvo’s car that is equipped with magnetic sensors has one very significant advantage. While other driverless cars can’t really drive in the snow, or even when it’s raining heavily, Volvo’s technology allows its car to drive in bad weather without any troubles. The radar sensors that Google uses can’t work in snow, and they can’t help a car determine its position on the road and stay in its lane. They only detect other vehicles, pedestrians, and other moving objects.

In addition to being more efficient than GPS and cameras, Volvo claims that its position-monitoring technology can help prevent cars from running off the road or entering another lane abruptly, reducing the number of accidents and potentially saving thousands of lives.


Money & Infrastructure Issues

As far as the cost of this system is concerned, Volvo says that installing magnets in an existing highway could cost around $39,000 per mile, which sounds a bit expensive. Also, the magnetic sensors that would have to be installed in all new cars would increase the cost by $109. However, the Swedish automaker claims that these additional costs would be offset by the reduced costs for road maintenance.

Another potential hurdle for the implementation of this magnetic system in the U.S. is the fact that roads are in a very poor condition, and need a lot of investment so that they can get back into shape. While governments in western European and Scandinavian countries seem to be willing to invest millions of dollars to provide the infrastructure that is necessary for Volvo’s magnetic system to work, U.S. authorities are not very likely to spend that kind of money for embedding magnets into its roads for a car that is still far from being commercially available. On the other hand, very few consumers will decide to buy such a car before the right infrastructure is put in place.

While there is no way of knowing whether this magnetic road idea will ever become a reality, it does highlight Volvo’s commitment to road safety, and it’s part of their efforts to develop a reliable self-driving car, that would help reduce fatal car crashes to zero by 2020, which is the Swedish car maker’s ultimate goal.


My Final Thoughts

To conclude, this idea might look appealing at first glance, but ultimately, it might have a negative impact on car owners, who could be forced to pay much higher fuel taxes, as well as higher registration fees that they are required to pay before they can use their cars on public roads. This is because roads with embedded magnets will be much more expensive to maintain, and construction and maintenance costs are paid for by taxpayers. This is why embedding magnets in the roadway is not the ideal alternative to sensors, GPS and cameras, for an accurate placement of a self-driving vehicle on the road.

But every new idea brought to the table only gives more options as to how self-driving cars might be implemented in the future. And the more options available to researchers, the more reliable the technologies they end up moving forward with will become. As with everything else, this technology will evolve. Don’t forget, before we had DVD, there was VHS, and even Betamax. It all has to start somewhere!

What do you think? We’d love to hear you sound off with your thoughts in the comments below!


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