On the level
For decades vehicle manufacturers have achieved significant advances to make cars and trucks capable of better protecting their occupants in the event of a crash. Now UD Trucks’ focus has widened to engineering solutions that aim to prevent crashes from happening at all with the bonus advantages of improved fuel economy and reduced driver fatigue.
We pass through the security gate at UD Trucks factory near Tokyo and are greeted in the foyer area by an endearing little robot.
There is not a human receptionist in sight and our group is thoroughly captivated by the ‘personality’ of a machine made from plastics, metals and silicone chips.
It’s fitting as we are in Japan to see UD Trucks’ first foray into autonomous commercial vehicles and silicone chips perform key functions in the trucks, just as they do in the robot.
During the past few years Prime Mover has done some first-hand reporting on autonomous trucks in Europe and North America but this brief interaction with a robot somehow seems to personalise the experience.
As part of the global Volvo Group, UD Trucks in Japan has the palpable expectation that, while initially it is a technology taker in the autonomous commercial vehicle space, the experience and expertise of the UD people will be taking the concept into very different and far reaching directions.
To date, the most common perception of an autonomous truck has been for a prime mover and trailer to be at Level 4 on the autonomy scale and operating on public roads, especially freeways.
There are numerous, but not insurmountable, challenges with that scenario. The reality is that there are far more opportunities and applications using rigid trucks in controlled areas such as mines and port precincts where the safety aspects can be totally managed and the freight task involves highly repetitive short distance travel.
UD Truck’s first demonstration of its Level 4 automated truck takes place on a cold December day in an open area of the UD Experience Centre. Temporary barrier structures have been erected to simulate various infrastructure items including loading docks, entry gates and other structures.
The 6x4 Quon rigid used for this demonstration has been fitted with an array of cameras as well as GPS, radar and 3D Lidar to monitor and interpret the surroundings and any potential obstacles.
While operating in its Level 4 autonomous mode the truck has a positioning accuracy of less than 25mm, which would rival the skills of just about any competent human driver.
The electronic devices associated with the Level 4 autonomy have been sourced from parent Volvo and are the same as fitted to the autonomous and platooning FH Volvo that Prime Mover experienced in Sweden during June 2018.
On the market since 2017 the new Quon’s electronic architecture enables more data to be extracted from the truck than previously and the demonstration shows the effect of the highly precise automation’s abilities to perform such tasks as starting, stopping, steering around obstacles and reversing into difficult spaces.
The driver in the cab on this day is truly only along for the ride and his arms are held in a ‘stick ‘em up’ pose well away from the steering wheel throughout the 20 minutes or so that the truck manoeuvres around the course.
Volvo Group’s development of high connectivity and practical automation isn’t merely confined to trucks. Major projects are well advanced involving construction equipment as well as buses.
At present the complexity of shared public roads combined with less than suitable infrastructure present significant challenges to the wider implementation of autonomous vehicles.
UD Trucks are not necessarily stepping back from on-road applications, especially in the area of on-highway platooning.
The pragmatic approach to having a focus on engineering autonomous solutions to suit defined locations such as mines, ports and even freight distribution centres will translate into a much more accelerated development and implementation of new and existing technologies.
Regardless of the level of autonomy, the technology offered to markets has to be foolproof and also has to be affordable to deliver an economic value to the owners of the vehicles.
A current example comes from Volvo and the sugar cane industry in Brazil where the implementation of trucks equipped with connective and autonomous technology ensures that they are perfectly aligned with the discharge chute from the cane harvesters and at the same time are driving on the defined wheel tracks to avoid damage to the seedlings coming up for next year’s crop.
Even the most competent and experienced drivers at times have difficulty matching the harvesters’ speed and avoiding crushing the young plants.
The result from adapting the autonomous features of the trucks has been that crop losses have been reduced by 12 per cent annually and the seven trucks in the pilot program are about to be expanded to a fleet of 25 over the next few months.
Volvo Group’s CAST or Common Architecture and Shared Technology is a major factor in Volvo Group becoming the leader in this type of technology.
CAST provides the various divisions of the Volvo Group including UD Trucks and Mack with an extremely efficient way to utilise resources and amortise costs as well as broadening the intellectual input, as experts including customers, in differing situations, are able to collaborate to achieve beneficial results for the broader operations.
In Japan UD Trucks have benefitted from CAST to gain a head start in the autonomous technology race and in just a few months have been able to quickly adapt technology from Sweden to UD vehicles in order to be able to present a practical demonstration of a truck that thinks for itself.
Volvo Group’s Vice President of Vehicle Automation Henrik Färnstrand is on hand in Japan to explain how straightforward the adaptation to the UD Quon has been.
“We just took it from an FH and put it into the UD Quon,” Henrik says. “It was done in four months and the software was installed in less than one week.”
In co-operation with the other three local heavy truck manufacturers UD Trucks is participating in the Japanese government’s highway platoon projects.
The object is to improve the accuracy and safety of automation technologies particularly vehicle-to-vehicle communication across the various OEM brands.
Technology relative to the connection protocol is shared between the OEMs but their various proprietary technologies for the systems controlling the vehicles remain independent and strongly protected.
Connectivity and digitalisation are the key enablers in automation and both come with certain challenges around the quality of the data, not so much from the vehicles themselves but from vehicle to infrastructure communications.
Cyber security is also a factor to be considered. Volvo Group had its first connected truck in 1993 and UD had its first connected truck in Japan in 2006.
UD Trucks currently have around 50,000 connected trucks in Japan with the ambition to expand this to 150,000 by 2025.
Connectivity testing is being carried out in Australia with between 80 to 90 trucks involved and there is also an assessment program currently taking place in South Africa.
Volvo Group globally has 800,000 connected assets including trucks, mining equipment and buses and aims to have two million by 2015.
“Automation, connectivity and electromobility are the three pillars of our innovation roadmap,” says Douglas Nakano Senior Vice President of UD Trucks Technology. “UD Trucks is proud to be an active partner of the logistics industry and we aim to drive innovation with our customers.”