Volvo's chief of research and development isn't so much a fan of Tesla's Autopilot system, though there's a good chance he just doesn't get it. Speaking with The Drive, Dr. Peter Mertens, SVP of Research and Development, thinks Autopilot is out to get him:
"Every time I drive (Autopilot), I'm convinced it's trying to kill me. … Anyone who says we have systems that are better than human drivers is lying to you. Anyone who moves too early is risking the entire autonomous industry. We're the safety brand, and we're taking things slowly. Until the systems are better than a good human driver, Volvo won't go there."
Volvo has a long history of focusing on safety and their cars are considered to be among the safest on the planet, but their own autonomous tech is currently lagging far behind what Tesla offers. Volvo's 2016 S90 sedan and V90 wagon are the first to offer "Pilot Assist", a self-steering feature that when combined with adaptive cruise control brings it technically closer to the capabilities of Autopilot. But as The Drive notes, it's hobbled by "tardy adjustments and ping-ponging between lane markers" just as many other manufacturers.
Tesla's Autopilot system, on the other hand, uses a combination of radar, ultrasonic sensors, and a forward-looking camera to place the car firmly in the center of the lane. Tesla owners have driven more than 100 million miles on Autopilot, providing enough data to demonstrate that a car under Autopilot control is significantly safer than one driven by a human.
Mertens' chief complaint comes from the scenario where the car hands over control to the driver, noting that the handover can happen suddenly and without much warning. There's just one problem: his idea of what Autopilot is advertised to do and what the reality of what Tesla is adamant that it can do are far apart.
Tesla has stressed from the beginning that Autopilot is not yet a system where the driver can completely disengage from the driving process and that they must be prepared to take control at any time. The system even nags drivers that aren't holding on to the steering wheel, eventually bringing the car to a complete halt if they continue to ignore the car. In short, Autopilot is not for tuning out. There's a reason Tesla brands it as a beta.
In fact, Volvo's adaptive cruise control when used in conjunction with their new Pilot Assist feature cover a large portion of the Tesla Autopilot feature set. Aside from the overall superior quality of the experience, Tesla also offers automatic triggered lane change support that Volvo does not. Perhaps it's an issue of Tesla's branding that has all of these competitors' engineers confused — this isn't the first time that a Volvo engineer has had harsh words for Autopilot — or maybe they're being deliberately misleading about what Tesla says the offer and the capabilities of their own products.
Competitors like Volvo are likely going to have even more of a steep hill to climb in catching up to Tesla — CEO Elon Musk has all but confirmed that the upcoming Model 3 will offer full point-to-point self-driving autonomous driving. We'll be interested what they have to say about that then.