Volvo has been on an advanced-technology kick for a few years now, and its latest project hopes to tackle the pesky hurdles surrounding accurate autonomous-car positioning. With all of the autonomous-driving work Volvo’s doing—it’s been testing road trains, production-intent low-speed self-driving functionality, and its 100-car autonomous trial in the Swedish city of Gothenburg—precise vehicle placement on the road is critical. According to Volvo, GPS and camera tech is good, but not great, and it has come up with a better solution: magnets.
The Swedish automaker is testing the use of magnets embedded in the roadway that, when paired with magnetic field sensors in vehicles, give those vehicles an uninterrupted idea of where they are. As Volvo points out, the fields aren’t affected by weather and other obstacles on the road, including other cars or overhead structures that can scramble GPS signals. Leave it to a Swedish company to come up with a workaround for self-driving cars’ limitations in poor weather—one of the more compelling challenges facing autonomous tech—since, like us here in Michigan, the Swedes are quite familiar with snow.
For now, Volvo’s in-road magnet testing consists of a 328-foot test track outside of Gothenburg that features tiny ferrite magnets about eight inches below the road surface. As Volvo’s preventative safety leader Jonas Ekmark puts it, “The magnets create an invisible ‘railway’ that literally paves the way for a positioning accuracy of less than one decimeter.” Ekmark’s clever pun aside, we have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, we dig any effort to ensure self-driving cars don’t go AWOL because of a lack of sufficient location data, but on the other, what separates cars following an invisible “railway” from, well, actual rail traffic? We’ll still take the wheel, thanks.