The future is now
Volvo Trucks has been accelerating the integration of the use of electronic controls to improve its vehicles from both safety and efficiency perspectives. Earlier this year it showcased some of its newest discoveries.
A utomation is not new nor is it restricted to the imaginations of engineers or the realms of science fiction.
Ranging from the automatic pilots in aircraft, autonomous lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners in the home, to the driverless Metro train system now under construction in Sydney, automation has become an important and accepted part of modern life. Dusk sensing headlights, rain sensing wipers and even self-parking systems are now common in family sedans and we’ve long accepted cruise control as standard equipment.
The Volvo I-Shift automated manual transmission (AMT) was introduced in Volvo trucks 2001 and is a prime example of the manufacturer’s innovative technologies and proof that in many instances electronics can produce a better result that human operation on its own.
Volvo’s attention in recent years has encompassed the development of a suite of technologies, which perform well in their own right and add exponential value to road transport when in combination with more than one system.
Some of the technologies have achieved such maturity that systems for collision warning with emergency brake and lane changing support have become a legal requirement on all heavy vehicles in the European Union.
Platooning has obvious fuel economy and carbon emission advantages due to the improved aerodynamics and the connection of multiple vehicles operating in close proximity has become possible due to developments in separate systems such as Volvo Dynamic Steering, Autonomous Emergency Braking and Adaptive Cruise Control.
The electronic tethering of trucks was ably demonstrated in 2016 during the European Truck Platoon Challenge (ETPC) in which Volvo and other OEMs had groups of platooned trucks (in Volvo’s case using three semi-trailer combinations) drive on public roads from various European cities to meet in Rotterdam in The Netherlands.
The Volvo trucks participating in that successful demonstration now have the additional aspect of autonomous driving added into their development.
Mention ‘platooning’ and the usual top of mind response for those in the Australian trucking industry is for vehicles to be electronically connected and utilised on the long haul corridors such as the Hume Highway or across the thousands of kilometres of the Nullarbor Plain. In addition to the obvious applications Volvo has been very active in some other niche developments.
An automated 540hp Volvo FMX has been trialled successfully at the Boliden mine in northern Sweden hauling ore from more than one kilometre underground to the crusher located on the surface. The anticipated efficiency and safety dividends of using the driverless tipper are increased by the ability to require less people to be working underground.
Volvo has also targeted the sugar cane harvesting industry in Brazil by using a truck in autonomous mode when collecting cane from a harvesting machine. This is to ensure the accuracy of following a narrow wheel path which avoids damage to seedlings that have been planted for next year’s crop. It has been calculated that the difference in crop yield between driver and autonomous collection is up to ten tonnes per hectare.
To experience first-hand the combined autonomous platoon concept Prime Mover travels to Volvo’s Stora Holms training and testing centre located 14 kilometres outside of Gothenburg in Sweden. The same three semi-trailer combinations that participated in the ETPC are employed here and are electronically linked with the third truck in the line also capable of operating autonomously.
The weather is cold and raining which could present an additional challenge to the demonstration yet the drivers seem unperturbed. Ascending into the cab of the third truck we are reassured to find Sydney-based Per Hansen at the controls.
Per goes through the explanation of what to expect during the next few laps of the closed course including the information that we will be sharing the roads with other Volvo trucks that are involved in separate activities involving different technology innovations including natural gas fuels and dual clutch transmissions.
The trucks in the platoon all get up to around 70 km/h before the drivers in the second and third units activate the connections and the trucks are able to close the gap between each other to take advantage of the aerodynamic efficiencies. The drivers have additional information screens to monitor each other and the radar and camera systems, plus transmitted data from the trucks in front, effectively enable each vehicle to adapt to changing situations instantaneously.
One lap in and Per selects autonomous mode. It takes just a few seconds for the truck to inform him that it is now essentially driving itself so he removes his hands from the steering wheel. He insists that the autonomy feature is still a ‘work in progress’ but it’s still very impressive as we accelerate in line with the lead truck to 90 km/h (the EU speed limit for heavy vehicles). Braking and turning are also in the ‘hands’ of the electronics while in autonomous mode and as passenger confidence builds, surprisingly quickly.
Animal strikes here are not restricted to the kangaroos, wombats and steers in Australia. Scandinavian countries have their own issues with moose, which can weigh up to 800 kgs. The use of infrared cameras, which pick up the body heat of animals located on the roadside, is an avenue that will reduce accidents and better protect wildlife and domesticated animals as well as road users including the truck driver.
Volvo executives and engineers are insisting that there is no intention to deliver driverless trucks for on-road use. Rather, these latest technologies are more about supporting the driver in ways that assist and enhance their abilities and improve safety. There will be certain solutions for confined areas such as in mines and agriculture and different applications altogether for operation in the dynamic environments of urban areas.
In another direction, Volvo Trucks is introducing a cloud-based service, Connected Safety, which allows Volvo trucks and Volvo cars to automatically alert each other to hazardous traffic situations. The system will initially only be available in Sweden and Norway beginning this year and is applicable to the Volvo FH16, Volvo FH, Volvo FM and Volvo FMX models equipped with Volvo Trucks’ integrated system for services and infotainment, depending on the truck’s specification and choice of services.
The passenger-car version of Connected Safety was launched by Volvo Cars in 2016 and was developed to send out alerts to nearby vehicles connected to the service whenever a driver activates the vehicle’s hazard warning lights. When the truck’s hazard warning lights are switched on, the truck sends a signal via the driver’s internet-connected mobile phone to Volvo Trucks’ cloud service. From there the information is forwarded to the corresponding service at Volvo Cars. An alert is then transmitted to all connected cars and trucks approaching the location of the vehicle whose hazard lights have been activated.
“A vehicle standing still by the roadside in poor visibility risks being hit from the rear, which can have severe consequences. An alert issued well in advance gives all drivers of nearby cars and trucks the same opportunity to reduce speed, adjust their driving to the traffic situation and avoid a collision,” explains Carl Johan Almqvist, Volvo Trucks Traffic and Safety Director.
In the longer term, the cloud-based service can be expanded with additional safety-enhancing functions. With Connected Safety, Volvo is certainly opening the door to the future and both the car and truck companies have indicated the hope that more vehicle manufacturers will join in.