Volvo's Pilot Assist II Misses The Mark

...But Could Hit Something Else

I love Volvo's new design style, it's elegant, understated, functional, everything a car designed by Swedes should be. What I really love though is the interior, and the marriage of technology and beautiful interior design. The new Sensus in-vehicle infotainment system is one of the best in the industry. That's one of the reasons we chose the XC90 when we were looking for a new family hauler to pack our two young kids, and two 65lb dogs into (also my wife is over 6ft, so there needs to be leg room).

Since the delivery of our 2017 XC90 we’ve had plenty of time to play with the new Pilot Assist II, a revision of the original semi-autonomous driving system found on the 2016 model. It's good, but it still leaves a lot to be desired, and requires a lot of driver attention. The newest iteration does have one major improvement from the original, the feature now works above 35mph, up to an advertised 80mph. Full disclosure, we’ve had it past 80mph, and it still works, though we haven’t explored where the limit actually exists. For those unfamiliar, Volvo’s take on semi-autonomous driving is considered a level 2 system; in the case of PilotAssist it uses adaptive cruise control with lane centering capabilities to take over steering, accelerating and decelerating tasks for the driver. It’s important to note that the driver must be ready to take control at any moment. Volvo also has a number of safety features which can evade obstacles, such as dear, or moose in the case of Pilot Assist II, as well as come to a complete emergency stop. So, in ideal circumstances the car “feels like” it drives itself. Realty is never ideal.

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Image courtesy of Volvo Cars - 2017 Volvo S90
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A few weeks back we’re cruising down the interstate, kids safely buckled into their car seats, ventilated front seat keeping my toned posterior nice and cool, everything looking good ahead. I decide it's the perfect time to switch on the Pilot Assist and let the car take over the monotony. Part of me wishes that an inflatable pilot popped out, but the Volvo is not an Airplane. Instead I tap the steering wheel mounted pad to the right to engage Pilot Assist, wait for the little steering wheel icon to light up green and relax. Everything is perfect, a mile down the road the car subtly reminds me to put some input into the wheel, making sure I’m still paying attention. I give it a soft jiggle, not enough to jostle my precious cargo, but enough to trick the car into thinking I’m ready to take over. In truth I am paying attention, because I’ve done this enough now, that I know the failings of the system, but I love to test it.

We’re cruising along at a reasonable interstate pace when we spot some construction ahead, the traditional bright orange cones begin to protrude into the lane ahead of us, what will the Pilot Assist do? Can it sense the obnoxious color? Does it comprehend the need to cross the dashed white line to our right without disturbing the flow of traffic? The simple answer no. I have the feeling that the Volvo will absently plow through the cones none the wiser, but I continue letting it drive. My wife starts to get anxious in the passenger seat, finally blurting out my name, as if I wasn’t paying attention. I was, I take over, everything is fine. It is however, a reminder that Pilot Assist II is not really driving for me, but acting as a pretty dumb assistant ready only for perfect roads.

Photo by Doug Newcomb - Forbes contributor

Can it sense the obnoxious color? Does it comprehend the need to cross the dashed white line to our right without disturbing the flow of traffic? The simple answer no.

This is only one example, and not the worst one. On a few occasions our Volvo has gotten confused by off ramp lines, and was unable to choose which lane to be in, resulting in a jerking motion. Or when changing lanes, which Pilot Assist leaves to the intelligence of the driver unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, if the max speed on the cruise control is set higher than your current speed it will accelerate quickly, even if there is a car a slight distance ahead. The obvious result is quickly slowing down so as not to get too close; all of which is an awkward dance that wastes fuel, jostles your passengers, and leaves you wondering if it wouldn’t just be easier to do the whole thing yourself.

None of this is really all that surprising, Volvo doesn’t call the system Autopilot for a reason, you need to be there, you are supposed to be babysitting the car while the system is doing its’ thing. The real problem is the handoff. When the system stops working, and hands the controls back to the driver. It’s a contentious moment that Tesla has come under fire for in the past, and made some improvements to mitigate. In fact, technical lead of crash avoidance at Volvo Trent Victor left some strong remarks in an interview with The Verge regarding Tesla’s Autopilot that would leave many assuming Volvo had its’ shit together in this area. Nothing could be further from the truth. The way Pilot Assist communicates the handoff to the driver can be terrifyingly too subtle. On a number of occasions, I’ve been monitoring the system, as the diligent driver I am, only to find the car not really doing anything. A quick glance down at the gauges has me hunting for the green steering wheel icon only to find the white outline empty, and the car under my control.


Image courtesy of Volvo Cars

When things aren’t normal, and it doesn’t know what to do, it just turns off. OFF, no indicators, just no green little icon anymore.

Under normal circumstances the car will alert you with a soft sound, and some amber text in the lower left corner of the gauge cluster reminding you to put your hands on the wheel. If that fails the reminder occurs again, and reduces the volume on the stereo in hopes of getting your attention. If that fails, well it turns off. That’s normal circumstances. When things aren’t normal, and it doesn’t know what to do, it just turns off. OFF, no indicators, just no green little icon anymore. Look at the size of that icon, it isn’t very big, and if I am paying attention to the road, I’m definitely not going to notice that the green turns off. All of this angers me, because I am a reasonable good driver, a fast driver, but an attentive one; I use my turn signals, I yield at roundabouts, I stop at crosswalks. What if, in the moment when I was trusting the car to ‘assist’ me I looked down at the touchscreen infotainment system to turn off my ventilated seat, which in a best case scenario requires 2 taps in different locations on the screen. In that amount of time the car has stopped ‘assisting’ me and is now careening toward whatever it didn’t know how to deal with, and gave me no indication.

I am a user experience designer by profession, so in my line of work it is important to communicate system responses. For example, when you send an email there’s a little progress bar, that lets you know how much has been uploaded, or if you put in an incorrect password there’s a message so you know. In good design these indications occur in context to the action, the same cannot be said of my Volvo. Tesla’s updated system has a big pulsing yellow outline around the gauge cluster, maybe not perfect, but it’s a lot better than Volvo’s. Personally I would like to see the infotainment system give me a warning, along with something more obtrusive on the gauges, how about a more obvious audible alert, and even a little haptic vibration in the driver seat, like on GM’s cars. For the time being, PilotAssist is still a novelty, a dangerous one, and one that my wife refuses to use.

Darcy Stalport

A user experience designer with a passion for cars, design, and great interface. He's particularly critical of the car you drive and the interface in it.

Seattle, WA