Auto focus

Volvo Trucks gets into self-driving mode

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on January 11, 2018

A self-driving garbage truck being demonstrated at a Volvo Trucks facility in Gothenburg   -  N Ramakrishnan

Swedish company carrying out pilot studies for autonomous trucks

A young man in bright overalls gets on to the driver’s seat of a garbage truck parked in a small area cordoned off by picket fences. He drives a short distance, parks it, gets down, picks up a trash bin and places it near the truck. The pulleys in the truck pick up the bin, empty the trash into the compactor bin mounted on it and sets down the empty bin.

The young man then moves the trash bin to where it was and heads for the truck. Instead of getting back inside, he releases the handbrake, steps back a few paces and presses a key on a small remote. The truck, without anybody at the steering wheel, moves to the next position, where the man repeats the process of placing the bin for emptying.

This goes on a few more times, before the truck makes a neat turn and goes back to where it was originally parked. Volvo Trucks officials, who put up this display for a group of international journalists at Gothenburg, Sweden, said the commercial application for self-driving trucks is still some way off.

The route and places where it stops to pick up the bins are programmed into a computer and the details are communicated to the truck. Volvo Trucks plans to do a pilot study later this year on a public road in Gothenburg along with the company responsible for garbage clearance. There are safety issues involved, which involves the cooperation of government authorities, pedestrians and other road users.

Mikael Karlsson, Vice-President – Productivity & New Concepts, and Sasko Cuklev, Director – Customer Solutions & New Services Development, Volvo Trucks Group, told the media that productivity, safety and energy efficiency were the three main drivers for automation in trucks.

Among the key challenges are sensors, which need to exceed and replace the human eye and will also have to work all the time in a self-driving vehicle. The verification process for these trucks must cover all traffic scenarios while ensuring repeatability and precision.

Other projects

Volvo Trucks is doing two other on-ground pilots. One is in an ore mine at Boliden in north Sweden, where an autonomous truck is used to transport ore to the crusher. A video shows a driverless truck in the underground mine navigating its way when it comes to a stop after sensors detect some movement — in this case a human being who has come in the truck’s path as part of the experiment.

In another experiment in Brazil, an autonomous truck is being used in a field to harvest sugarcane. The problem here is that during manual operations, almost 12 per cent of the stubble, crucial for the following season’s crop, was damaged. Thanks to the autonomous truck, the losses were eliminated.

Be it the self-driving garbage truck or the ones at the Boliden mine and Brazil, the objective of automation is to improve productivity, increase safety and cut losses. In the case of the garbage truck, it is monotonous for the driver to get out at each bin, go through the motion and get back into the truck. This is tiring and reduces the number of bins that a truck can cover. With an autonomous truck, the efficiency will greatly improve.

Challenges

Karlsson and Cuklev say that having autonomous trucks on public roads has to cross many hurdles. It needs regulatory approval, especially on fixing liability in case of an accident. Regulators must also decide on what types of roads these trucks can be deployed.

Volvo is working with various partners in each of the three cases to test out the technology and overcome glitches. Self-driving trucks can be put to use, after more experiments and pilot tests, in confined areas such as terminal yards, airports and ports.

Different activities

According to Karlsson, Volvo Trucks is running a lot of different activities on automation and self-driving. One of these is a concept called platooning, where there is more than one vehicle in the platoon. There is a very small gap between the trucks.

Platooning, says Karlsson, can decrease fuel consumption. “In future, we are also examining if the second or the third truck can be self-driven, but connected to the first truck, which has a driver inside,” he adds.

How does this reduce fuel consumption? It brings down the drag, explains Cuklev, and benefits the first truck and the other two following it. Ideally, there should be three trucks in the platoon. According to them, a lot of issues need to be sorted out before platooning can be tried out on public roads on a commercial model.

One, which truck will be the lead. Two, how will the gains be split among the trucks in the platoon. Three, communication between the trucks needs to be foolproof. Four, what if a truck other than the lead one wants to break away from the platoon. Besides, there is also the space that a platoon will occupy on a public road and how that will affect other road users.

The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment organised the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016 where six convoys of trucks of different manufacturers left Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and converged at the Rotterdam port. A booklet published about this event, available on the internet, lists the benefits of truck platooning.

Karlsson explains that automation has been introduced in vehicles over the last 50 years in varying degrees. This includes automatic gears, electronic steering, antilock braking systems, cruise control and engine-assisted emergency brakes. However, the level of automation now being experimented upon takes it to an entirely different plane where the key is to drive profitability for customers while keeping in line with Volvo’s core values of safety and environmental care.

The level of automation exhibited to the journalists may just about work in the West where people follow road rules. In India, it seems impossible to even contemplate any of these concepts on public roads at least for the next few decades.

The writer was in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the invitation of VE Commercial Vehicles

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on July 13, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor