The company made the announcement early Wednesday. President and chief executive officer Håkan Samuelsson is expected to elaborate on the decision Thursday while speaking in Washington D.C. Questions over legal liability of accidents and the changing role of car insurance for motorists in a driverless-car era have been asked since engineers first plucked the idea of autonomous vehicles from the pages of science fiction and started turning them into reality. But despite the question being posed throughout the auto industry, few have had an answer.
Volvo's pledge marks the first concrete step toward one. While the carmaker only represents a small fraction of the U.S. market this move is also a smart business decision, giving Volvo an edge over automakers who don't offer a similar liability shield to customers.
"The U.S. risks losing its leading position due to the lack of federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles." - Håkan Samuelsson.
In remarks prepared for lawmakers, Samuelsson, pictured above, cautions that autonomous technology will be ready for public deployment soon, and he urges them to ensure the legal framework for self-driving cars is in place by the time they arrive. Without such laws in place, deployment could be delayed.
"The U.S. risks losing its leading position due to the lack of federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles," Samuelsson said. "Europe has suffered to some extend by having a patchwork of rules and regulations. It would be a shame if the U.S. took a similar path."
Four U.S. states – California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan – allow for autonomous testing on public roads, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has started to grapple with the process of setting standards that would be consistent across states and issued an advanced notice of public rulemaking on the broader traffic environment created by vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
But specific federal guidelines related to autonomous operations are still in fledgling stages. Automakers say they're welcomed in many cases, as they need uniformity in everything from traffic signs to lane markings to speed the arrival of autonomobiles. When Delphi Automotive took the first cross-country trip in an autonomous car earlier this year, the company said its technology performed fine. It was variations that occurred from state to state that proved difficult.
"Nevada had lane markings that were shorter dots, and other places, painted stripes almost washed out," said Michael Pozsar, Delphi's vice president of electronic controls. "Our vision systems have to be tuned to ensure we can differentiate that. What would be better would be better harmonization across the United States."
Samuelsson is also expected to address cyber-security weaknesses in cars that have affected millions of vehicles this year alone. Volvo regards car hacking as a criminal offense.