Autonomous Vehicles

Published on March 15th, 2014 | by Christopher DeMorro


Volvo: Autonomous Cars Are Better Off Using Magnets

March 15th, 2014 by  

Originally published on Gas 2.


Self-driving cars are coming, and Volvo thinks the key to autonomous vehicles is the use of magnets, not video cameras or radar devices. It makes sense, but only if Volvo can get government authorities on board.

Many current autonomous concepts, like those from Ford and BMW, rely on GPS positioning, LiDAR, and cameras to detect road obstacles and stay on the road. These systems work, to an extent, but in poor weather conditions can be less than worthless. The solution, as Volvo sees it, is to use magnets and sensors in the road and car respectively pinpoint the car’s location at all times.

The small magnetic discs are buried eight-inches below the surface of the road, and on a 100-meter test course, this system proved to be the cheapest and most-accurate autonomous vehicle solution. Other systems, like LiDAR and 360-degrees of cameras are expensive additions to the car, and their accuracy is sometimes spotty.

The Volvo system is accurate to within one decimeter, or about four-inches, resulting in the least amount of accidents in testing. Volvo has toyed with other systems, including road trains, but magnets are just all the way around a better idea it seems. Lower costs, better accuracy, and a real plan for making the entire system viable.

Instead of burying the magnets, Volvo could use them to replace existing road markers along popular routes in cities like New York and San Francisco. Such a system would be expensive to install over the long run, but select sections of highways (or perhaps H.O.V. lanes?) in major metro areas could cater to early adopters of self-driving vehicles. You build out from those metro areas, and eventually you’ve got a driverless, coast-to-coast highway.

Can magnets make autonomous cars truly viable for the masses?

Source: Volvo

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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • Rick Kargaard

    Autonomous autos would be great, but the concept is complex. I am not sure there is a need or desire for completley autonomous cars. Perhaps some form of fly by wire or modular public transit would be a better avenue to pursue. Road trains might work for long distance travel but people are going to want the independence of pit stops. It does seem easier to envision problems than it is to foresee solutions.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I want a self-driving car. I can see a time in the coming years at which I won’t be able to drive long distances, or at all.

      I don’t really want to move to a city in order to go car-less.

      And as someone who has been almost killed by drunk drivers twice and hit while walking along the road shoulder I’d really like a better driving system than humans.

      I just drove ocean to ocean. I’d much rather have had the car driving so I could have looked at the scenery.

      Independence of pit stops – one would still pick the destinations. Road trains, if used, would be dynamic.

      • Rick Kargaard

        I want one too but likely won’t live long enough to see one that would be practical in my case. I guess if I can’t drive I will have to rely on trains, planes and buses

        • Bob_Wallace

          Some of the features are already showing up in current models. My guess is that we’ll have self-drivers in about 10 years.

          That should be about the time I admit to being a senior citizen. (Except when there’s a discount available….)

  • Pongo

    Don’t know a lot about lidar, but I would not buy into a system based on gps, considering the sparodic inaccracy of positions it has shown boats I’ve sailed on and the age and how infirm the infra-structure is!

  • Kagetoki Kariya

    Not gonna work. You don’t just need the Lidar and cameras for lane detection. How are those magnets supposed to tell you about stop lights? Or stop signs? Or pedestrians in the cross walk? Hint: They won’t so you end up needing the cameras and lidar anyway. Lidar is only expensive because it didn’t have much use before outside of scientific work and surveying etc. But with widespread demand even just for testing of autonomous systems, not only has cost decreased but size and complexity as well. Ah, as with all technologies.

    • driveby

      exactly this ^^

      Just take solar panels for example or microchips or rockets..

    • wattleberry

      It would certainly deter jaywalkers. Lights could be easily simulated by reversing polarity, though I can see amber might have to be abandoned.

  • bussdriver78

    Great idea but these high power magnets are in demand now; we don’t have enough of them to do that. We NEED to also think about cutting how many roads we have. city blocks should double or quadruple in size. With robo cars, one can start thinking about TRAINS where the car parks on a train which goes long distances; it could recharge the car as well. long distance highways could be eliminated as well.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I doubt there’s a need for super-magnets to mark routes. Plus we can take the general concept and substitute other materials for the magnets. For example, a pattern of three metal ‘spikes’ set in a triangle could serve as the guide. Or RFID units.

  • Jonas Johan Solsvik

    This would be really fast to deploy if a strong government decides to do so. The challange is standardization as always. For the system to be effective it would need different magnets with different purposes, and the car would need to understand the what the different magnets would mean.

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