Driverless cars in two years? "Bulls**t" cries Volvo man as he launches car into a ditch

But robo-chaffeur tech could help save lives

Peter Mertens, Volvo's head of R&D is pretty certain autonomous drivingisn't on the horizon, but he does see the tech helping to save lives. So that's nice.

Volvo assembled the world's motoring media at their town-sized Gothenburg HQ yesterday to launch their Vision 2020 project. An ambitious and almost suspiciously altruistic plan, the idea is to make their cars so safe that there are zero road deaths or serious injuries on the roads by 2020. At all.

But it was regarding autonomous driving that Peter Mertens – Volvo's head of R&D – had a few, choice words. Actually one, choice word, calling, “Bullshit” on the idea that there will be self-driving cars rumbling, care-free over tarmac in two years.

Following Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson on stage, Peter flashed up a slide of a woman reading the newspaper while her car drove her to her destination, commenting: “If you look at the picture of having a person sitting behind a steering wheel, and doing emails and reading whatever, that kind of stuff is not what we want to see in a car. It's not what we want to see in a car. This is a very, very long term vision. And others are talking that they will have fully autonomous driving in every road condition and under any weather condition in any kind traffic condition in a couple of years. I think that's bullshit. We think that that is something which is just not telling the truth.”

That's not to say that Volvo aren't seriously working on autopiloted cars. They just see the benefits, above all, in enhanced safety. As Peter elaborates, “We are very, very serious about autonomous driving because for us, we look at autonomous driving, not for having people making their emails, but for making us get to our vision of 2020, it's actually our measure to be in the position to avoid accidents and get into less fatalities over time.”

Peter also had some thoughts on future engines, and the end of the horsepower arms race and obsessive cylinder counting. Volvo's new SUV (literally launched at the event: into a ditch) the XC90 is a hybrid with an engine packing just four cylinders, for a few good reasons.

“A couple of years ago,” continued Peter, “we took a very bold decision to say, you know, we're going to stick to four cylinders or less. We don't need, six, or five, or eight cylinders anymore. The times of counting cylinders is just the past. We don't worry about that, we don't care. The real customer needs is not in counting cylinders, it's having the performance levels to really have fun while driving the cars and being environmentally responsible, so that's why we decided on sticking to four cylinders.”

Indeed, to keep development costs down, all future Volvos will be based on one power train and various versions of their new, four cylinder engine. Peter: “We decided to design an architecture and power train that easily combines a combustion engine with an electric motor. So that you have V8 power and only a very, very small amount and CO2 emissions. We have a powerful combustion engine in front with 320horsepower, we have a powerful electric motor on the rear axle, with 80horsepower and in total we have 640nm of torque, 0 to 100kph in 5.9 seconds, CO2 58g/km. That's two and a half litres that is 59 miles per gallon. Mind blowing numbers.”

And there's more. Turns out four cylinder engines are nice and light. As Peter says: “The four cylinder engine enables a weight reduction in the engine but also in the architecture if you don't have to cope with the weight of an eight cylinder engine. The architecture gets significantly lighter and then you have all the possibilities of making this beautiful car drive like crazy and still be extremely environmentally friendly.”

Volvo are also very proud of their Scandinavian design ethos too, resulting in a handsome car that just looks better and better the nearer you poke your nose in. It'll give Audi's Q7 and Beemer's X5 a real run for their money. Plus, it will be significantly cheaper.

We'll follow up with a review of the XC90 at the end of February, when Volvo will be hosting their review event. Oh, and here's a video of their car being fired into a ditch. You're welcome.