The autonomous cars are coming. Google’s perfecting its robo-egg, Cadillac’s working on something called Super Cruise and Elon Musk promises that your Tesla will soon fetch itself from the parking garage and come pick you up. Volvo, for its part, has a system that’ll handle stop-and-go traffic, the dreary highway crawl that so many of us face every day. It’s called Pilot Assist, and it’s not some vaporware assigned to an indeterminate future debut. It’s here now, in dealerships, in the 2016 XC90. And it’s awesome.
Here’s how Pilot Assist works: In highway traffic that’s grinding along at less that 30 mph, the XC90 uses radar to lock on the car in front of you. Meanwhile, a high-mounted camera reads the lane markings to ensure you stay in your lane. The car takes over steering, throttle and brakes, occasionally chiming an alarm if it detects that you’ve totally checked out and taken both hands off the wheel for more than 15 seconds. The system’s not finicky, not indecisive—it just works. Outside the car, nobody else would suspect that your Volvo is driving itself. That is, until traffic starts running 35 mph and you top out at 30. Then you lose your lead car and it’s back to the grind.
It’s certainly sexier to have a car drive itself at full-fledged highway speeds, or go park sans driver, but the unassuming Volvo system, buried in a dash menu next to the cruise control, is a huge deal. I headed into rush hour in Raleigh, NC (don’t laugh, denizens of New York, Los Angeles and DC) and even the Triangle’s modest gridlock produced two rear-end collisions that morning. This is the kind of traffic that’s so boring, so stultifying, that it lures you into complacency. Hey, I’m only doing 20 mph, let me see what else is on the radio—BANG! Time to open the glove box and find your insurance papers.
I’m not saying that a low-speed accident could never happen in the XC90, but radar has a lot better attention span than you do. If I had to commute in highway traffic (or if I lived in a perpetually traffic-snarled metropolis), Pilot Assist alone would vault the XC90 to the top of my shopping list.
Volvo being Volvo, it frames Pilot Assist as a safety feature, part of a system called IntelliSafe. And that it is, but it’s also just cool, a dash of utopian sci-fi lurking within your Swedish family hauler. I still love driving, but now and then I don’t mind a little help.