There’s something unique about the new 2016 Volvo XC90 T6, a car so high-tech and advanced it makes me wonder if some of the other automakers have been sleeping under a rock.
In a week-long test, I took this sporty crossover down to the Twin Cities and did the exact opposite of what I’d normally do: I looked for rush-hour traffic and tried to get myself into a traffic jam. The car uses something called Pilot Assist, which is Volvo's first implementation of a previous demo from way back in 2011 that creates a “platoon” of cars on the road. The basic idea is to have the car follow the speed and steering of the car in front of you. While the Volvo XC90 T6 is packed with safety and convenience features, some of them the first to ever debut on the road, it’s Pilot Assist that made me think we are inching ever so carefully toward the fully autonomous car.
And I mean inching. Pilot Assist works at speeds under 30mph where the car can easily spot lane marking. There needs to be a car in front of you that also goes under 30mph. To enable the feature, you press the cruise control button the steering column, then press the right arrow to see the Pilot Assist icon. After it engages, the sensation is a bit like being pulled by an invisible beacon. In one test, a classic convertible stayed fairly centered in the lane and the XC90 mirrored the speed and steering perfectly. With lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control only (the tech you might find in an Acura RLX, an Infiniti Q50 or an Audi RS7), the car tends to veer out of the lane eventually and warn you to grab the steering wheel again.
I took my hands off the steering wheel and my foot off the gas pedal for at least 20 minutes at a time. A spokesperson for Volvo told me he uses it for 90 minutes at a time in New York City. (In Minneapolis, you can get stuck for long periods, but 90 minutes is less common.) In another test, a larger vehicle kept swaying a bit back and forth in the lane. The XC90 mimicked those movements for a while, but eventually warned me to grab the wheel again. (The car actually uses A.I. to watch how you drive and will chime and warn you if you drive erratically.)
There’s nothing quite like Pilot Assist. Many newer cars (from Mercedes-Benz and Audi in particular) use cameras and sensors to monitor lane markings and traffic, but the XC90 is unique. The long-range sensors spotted traffic at least 20 car-lengths away from me and adjusted my speed gradually. The XC90 also sports many other tech advancements. It can brake automatically if it senses an imminent collision (even if that’s at an intersection, which is a first). The car will not only pull into a parking spot (parallel or perpendicular) on its own, but it can also exit the parking spot autonomously. This worked almost flawlessly, although I wondered why I would ever need the car to pull me out of a parking spot (that’s the easy part). And I’m not the target market for this feature. I tend to park at shopping malls and along a street with no problems. Still, for those who do have trouble, the XC90 makes it easier, which is handy for such a large crossover.
That leads me to my biggest finding in the XC90. When you have everyone packed into all seven seats (in the Inscription model I tested), you really want a car that creates a force field around you. In a few cases, when I wasn’t even using adaptive cruise control or Pilot Assist, the XC90 guided me back into my lane. Other cars that used lane-keeping (I’m looking at you, the 2015 Chrysler 200) tend to nudge you back in the lane rather abruptly. Not fun.
I spent so much time testing Pilot Assist and the safety features, I plan to do more testing since the XC90 is one of the first cars to sync to your iPhone 6 using Apple CarPlay. I also didn’t “touch” on the responsive touchscreen, which works almost exactly like an iPad. I’m a technophile; I wanted to spend more time testing out features over a longer period. Volvo, next time, OK?
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