1269km in one day, 14 hours behind the wheel of Volvo’s Auto Pilot equipped S90 Sedan

If you're going to test something, you've got to do it right.

I’ve said a lot of great things about the Volvo S90 since I drove it in Melbourne for the Australian launch, heck – I even gave it the EFTM Best Car award, a big call, but I was besotted with this thing and when the opportunity to stretch its legs presented itself – I took it.

Earlier this week I featured the Volvo S90 as one of my Best Tech of 2016 on The Today Show.

The Auto Pilot feature is the key part of that claim, and I’d certainly used it in the real-world on Melbourne’s Motorways and some country roads but they were planned roads driving first by Volvo so how could I be sure it wasn’t setup to suit the car?

Well, take it for a drive myself.  It’s Christmas and Boxing day, there’s no shops open, so Volvo didn’t exactly need the car back after my Today Show segment.  And my dear 98 year old Nanna was well overdue from a visit from one of seventeen grandchildren – that being me.

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She’s in Narrandera, so I set off at 4.15am from the North of Sydney.   I filled the tank with Diesel on Pennant Hills road and set the Apple Maps navigation via CarPlay on the touch-screen and off I went.

On the left hand side of the steering wheel I pressed the right arrow to enable Pilot Assist.  As I drove onto the M2 and got to up to speed, I pressed the centre button in the same location and enabled Adaptive Cruise Control.

For the uninitiated this means setting the maximum speed you wish to travel as well as the gap you’d like to the cars in front.  Once enabled your car will cruise along at speed and if a car in front is going slower it will slow down, match their speed and maintain a gap, until they move away or you pull into another lane.

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This is not revolutionary – it’s almost standard in many luxury cars already.  And I love it.

But with Pilot Assist enabled, not only do I not need to worry about my speed, I don’t need to worry about the curves in the road either as the car is capable of steering through them.

Lane departure assistance is becoming common in some high-end cars, it means as your car veers off course the wheel will either shudder or steer you back into the lane.  That’s a safety feature, and an excellent one. (which the Volvo also has).

Pilot Assist is more akin to a self-driving car though.  Pilot Assist will drive the road for you.  All you need to do is keep your hand on the wheel.

If you don’t have you hand on the wheel it will alert you in the dash and the projected head-up display on the windscreen, and after a moment all assistance will be switched off – including cruise control.

A difficult photo to take, but with remotes and mounts, I was able to show you the HUD and driving position

A difficult photo to take, but with remotes and mounts, I was able to show you the HUD and driving position

It’s not a lot of force required on the wheel either, you can rest your elbow on the door with your hand on the wheel and that’s fine.  You can feel the wheel turn, and your instinct will always second guess the car.

With your eyes now 100% on the road, it actually results in a greater level of concentration I felt. I was more aware of the cars around me, and the road ahead.  Combined with the windscreen head-up display (HUD) everything I needed was in my eye-line.

No doubt it’s a strange feeling, and before hand you’re thinking it’s an opportunity to relax and kick back, but in fact it’s just a huge assistance to the drive.  Most importantly you realise this is not a self driving car, there are times when you push the wheel not knowing if the car was going to move itself but it’s your instinct – then there are times when you feel it’s just a bit close to call.

The side of the road sometimes seems to close, and passing slower cars to the left of you in another lane it often felt a touch close for my liking.

Turns out the Volvo is doing things right.  It’s actually an offence to drive in the right hand side of your lane, not that anyone is likely to be booked for that, but it certainly spooked a few people who darted left after I passed them.

I drove over 400km from the M2, M7 down the Hume Highway to the Sturt Highway. Apart from a couple of stops for myself, the car didn’t miss a beat.

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On a country highway like the Sturt toward Narrandera I tried it again, and was impressed.  No where near as intelligent and close to “self-driving” but it could “see” the road very well.  It’s all about the lane markings though.  Where traffic had rubbed them away or they were non-existent the little green steering wheel icon of Pilot Assist would disappear.  This is why you must have your hands on the wheel and be basically driving at all times, you take over without even knowing it some times.

Where the roads would be C class at best and the undulations of the land a lot more intense it was less effective in any way.  From Boorowa to Yass I didn’t even bother using it.

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But after 1269.2km and 14 hours behind the wheel in an 18 hour period, I reckon I drove 1,100km and had 100% confidence around 80% of the time and was only “alarmed” on perhaps five occasions. By Alarmed I mean the car went into the next lane when taking a bend on a country road.  I only let it do this to find its limits and did it only when I had the visibility to do it comfortably.

Over that day I drove at an average of 93km/h, and fuel consumption was at 5.9l/100km. The ride was smooth, comfortable and the sound from the Bowers & Wilkins speaker system was simply sensational.

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This was a test of Volvo’s Pilot Assist past it’s advertised limits.  The car passed with flying colours.

I was recently asked “who’s leading the world with self-driving cars – is it Google, or Uber?”.  My answer was they are doing well, very well, but when you look at what Ford is doing and what Volvo have on the road today – I can only imagine that those two companies are at the forefront of this revolution.  Perhaps they don’t beat their chests like Tesla or Google, but they are getting on with the job.

These 1269km in the Volvo S90 confirmed it to be 2016’s Best for me, and it confirmed that Volvo have brought to market something very advanced for driver assistance on freeway driving that signals what’s next for cars over the years ahead.

Thanks for the drive Volvo.  Hope you don’t mind the extra K’s on the clock – I’ve washed the car if that helps? 🙂

 

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Motoring

Trevor produces two of the most popular technology podcasts in Australia, Your Tech Life and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He has a weekly radio show on 2UE, as well as appearances across the country and regularly provides Technology Commentary to Channel 9’s Today Show and A Current Affair. Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave. Like this post? Buy Trev a drink!
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