Move over Tesla, this self-driving car will let you sleep or watch a movie during your highway commute

The Volvo XC90 SUV is seen during the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 9, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Volvo wants its customers to know that your highway commute to and from work could soon include a nap, a meal or even the latest blockbuster.

The Swedish automaker (which is owned by Chinese automotive company Geely) plans to offer a true self-driving car by 2021, Volvo Senior Vice President of Research & Development Henrik Green told automotive website Jalopnik on Wednesday. That means within three years, Volvo drivers will have the option “eat, sleep, work, watch a movie, relax, do whatever,” while their autonomous car drives on the highway, Green says.

The system would be available in Volvo’s next generation of XC90 SUVs, according to Jalopnik — and it would approach what is known as Level 4 autonomy, which means the cars can operate safely, and without any need for human assistance, in most driving environments. (Level 4 autonomous cars are "capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)

In Volvo’s case, the cars would use mapping technology and laser sensors to safely navigate only on major highways, for the most part — which is why the company is calling its system, Highway Pilot.

The system will cost somewhere in the range of “four figures,” Green tells Jalopnik, as a premium add-on to the car. According to Volvo's website, the XC90 currently starts at $46,900.

The difference between Level 4 autonomy and Level 3, which is already in cars like Audi’s A8, is the latter can navigate certain roads on its own but with the expectation that a human driver will usually remain alert in order to take control when needed. With Level 4 autonomy, drivers on thoroughly mapped roadways would theoretically be free to doze off, or do some work during the trip, rather than paying attention to the road.

Level 5 autonomy, the highest, would be able to drive on any road and really not even require a human to come along for the ride.

Tesla’s famous Autopilot feature is closer to Level 2 autonomy, in that the car can do most of the driving, but a human driver needs to be ready to take over at any moment, Jalopnik notes. Tesla has said in statements that drivers must “maintain control of the vehicle at all times,” especially after a of involving drivers who were using Autopilot.

Elon Musk reveals his plan to send passengers anywhere on Earth in under 60 minutes, for the price of a plane ticket
Elon Musk reveals his plan to send passengers anywhere on Earth in under 60 minutes, for the price of a plane ticket

Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson has voiced his concerns about even Level 3 autonomous driving tech, saying in April 2017 that “Volvo considers this Level 3 driving mode unsafe and will thus skip this level of autonomous driving.” Samuelsson's concern with lower levels of autonomy is that humans won't reliably pay attention to the road in a self-driving car even when they have been instructed to stay alert in case they need to take control.

Self-driving cars may have once sounded like a futurists’ pipe dream, but a growing number of automakers and tech giants have helped make widespread autonomous driving seem inevitable within the next few years.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk expects his company to turn out a fully self-driving car within two years, he said in December, though high-profile and clashing with federal regulators like the National Transportation Safety Board could slow down Tesla’s efforts.

Meanwhile, other automakers like Volkswagen and Ford are also racing toward putting more advanced self-driving cars on the road. And ride-sharing giant Uber is competing with Google parent company Alphabet’s Waymo to create their own fleets of self-driving cars — a fierce rivalry that resulted in a trade secrets lawsuit that settled for $245 million in February.

Waymo and General Motors are generally accepted to be the companies farthest along in the race to a true self-driving vehicle, according to Bloomberg. Waymo’s fleet of self-driven vehicles have covered more than 5 million miles on public roads already in tests across 25 U.S. cities, with plans to launch a ride-hailing service of driverless cars in the next two years. And GM says it can launch its own self-driving taxis by 2019, the same year it plans to debut a car without a steering wheel or other manual controls.

In other words, Volvo’s sleeping commute could have some serious competition by 2021.

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