Owner Driver - - Truck Technology -

Au­tonomous trucks are a con­tentious topic and one that can seem worlds away but af­ter see­ing an au­tonomous truck in ac­tion, the tech­nol­ogy is here and we can tell you it works.

In 2017 Volvo Trucks part­nered with Swedish waste-man­age­ment com­pany Ren­ova to test and re­search the use of au­ton­omy in the refuse-han­dling in­dus­try, with a fo­cus on de­liv­er­ing im­proved safety, ef­fi­ciency and a bet­ter work­ing en­vi­ron­ment for oper­a­tors.

So far, the ve­hi­cle has been put through its paces in real work­ing con­di­tions and it has proven suc­cess­ful in its test­ing.

Volvo in­vited jour­nal­ists from around the world to view a live demon­stra­tion in Gothen­burg, Swe­den, and to ob­serve the truck’s func­tion­al­ity plus of­fer a chance to get a closer look in and around the ve­hi­cle. Volvo Trucks’ di­rec­tor of au­tonomous so­lu­tions Sasko Cuk­lev ex­plains how the truck op­er­ates safely in ur­ban ar­eas, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of sen­sors as well as an ini­tial drive of the route.

“It works like this; the first time you do a route you drive it and we record the route. Af­ter that we will be able to drive it [au­tonomously],” Cuk­lev says. “When we do the au­tonomous driv­ing, we drive up to the first bin, the driver emp­ties the first bin, but rather than driv­ing to the next bin, he or she walks and the truck fol­lows.”

Volvo Trucks’ tech­ni­cal project leader of au­to­mated trucks, Jo­han Tofeldt, in­sisted to the me­dia throng prior to the demon­stra­tion that there were no re­mote con­trols or hid­den driv­ers; the truck was truly op­er­at­ing on its own.

“With au­tonomous mode, the truck will be driv­ing by it­self and there will be no hid­den driver, no hid­den re­mote con­trol, it’s com­pletely self-driv­ing,” Tofeldt says.

Tofeldt ex­plains how the truck is able to op­er­ate with the op­er­a­tor out­side the cab, us­ing a com­plex ar­ray of in­puts rang­ing from GPS to li­dar (light de­tec­tion and rang­ing) sen­sors.

“The small black boxes in the cor­ner of the truck, they’re li­dars. They look at the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment at all times and com­pare that to a map,” he says. “It also cal­cu­lates its posi­ton us­ing the wheel speed and steer­ing an­gle, and it uses the GPS sys­tem.

“It cal­cu­lates the po­si­tion in many dif­fer­ent ways and as long as it’s all in agree­ment we are con­fi­dent that we know where we are.

“We can also see on the side of the truck there is a green light that starts to flash. That’s when we are in a safe mode for the op­er­a­tor to go around the truck.”

While the truck is au­tonomous, there is still an emer­gency stop but­ton the op­er­a­tor has ac­cess to from out­side the cab where vis­i­bil­ity is bet­ter than a tra­di­tional driv­ing po­si­tion.

“It also al­lows for him to be in the cor­rect po­si­tion … to see if there is any prob­lem or an ob­sta­cle so he can al­ways press an emer­gency stop but­ton,” he adds.

Ac­cord­ing to Tofeldt, the ben­e­fits of this sys­tem are three-fold and this is only one of many ways au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy can be im­ple­mented in trucks.

“This tech­nol­ogy can be used for many dif­fer­ent pur­poses, but this one is go­ing from one trash bin to the next trash bin au­tonomously so the driver doesn’t need to step into the cab. It’s a win-win-win sit­u­a­tion; it’s a bet­ter work en­vi­ron­ment, they don’t jump in and out of the cab. It’s also safer be­cause the truck it­self will refuse to hit an ob­sta­cle.”

The truck set off and suc­cess­fully demon­strated the range of au­tonomous func­tions it’s ca­pa­ble of, wow­ing the crowd but more im­por­tantly prov­ing it can be done. This isn’t a truck that will drive from Syd­ney to Melbourne and take the job off in­ter­state driv­ers; it’s a truck built for a spe­cific pur­pose that re­quires a more ef­fi­cient trans­port so­lu­tion. The begin­nings of au­tonomous trucks are here and the Volvo and Ren­ova part­ner­ship is proof self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles can be used com­mer­cially to not only im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity and safety, but also the qual­ity of work for oper­a­tors.

“It’s a win­win-win sit­u­a­tion; it’s a bet­ter work en­vi­ron­ment, they don’t jump in and out of the cab.”

Sen­sors mon­i­tor the truck’s yaw and when trac­tion loss or skid­ding is de­tected, the VDS sys­tem will counter steer to cor­rect the ve­hi­cle and the ex­ist­ing ESP sys­tem will also step in and brake in­di­vid­ual wheels if nec­es­sary.

“This sys­tem will ac­tu­ally re­act be­fore you as the driver will no­tice skid­ding, be­cause this sys­tem is so sen­si­tive,” An­dreas­son says.

While we weren’t able to ex­pe­ri­ence this in a truck on-road or on the track, a video high­lights the tech­nol­ogy and af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this VDS sys­tem across the day, we’d be con­fi­dent putting this fea­ture to the test.

“Imag­ine you’re driv­ing on a wet, slip­pery road and you sud­denly no­tice that the rear of the truck is start­ing to lose its grip on the as­phalt,” Volvo Trucks traf­fic and prod­uct safety di­rec­tor Carl Jo­han Almqvist says.

“Be­fore this de­vel­ops into a skid, you steer gen­tly in the op­po­site di­rec­tion un­til the dan­ger is over.

“That’s ex­actly the way Volvo Dy­namic Steer­ing with Sta­bil­ity As­sist works. The big dif­fer­ence is that the sys­tem can dis­cover the risk and help sta­bilise the ve­hi­cle be­fore you’ve even no­ticed that some­thing is about to hap­pen.”

Per­sonal Set­tings

Volvo Trucks in­sists the new VDS aids are there to as­sist the driver; the au­tonomous func­tion­al­ity isn’t be­ing in­tro­duced to take driv­ers out of the truck.

“We put the driver even more in charge of the truck than they are to­day,” An­dreas­son as­sures us. “As a re­sult, we will have a hap­pier driver and a safer driver.”

In keep­ing with the driver fo­cus, Volvo has built what it’s call­ing Per­sonal Set­tings into the up­dated VDS sys­tem, al­low­ing driv­ers to ad­just wheel re­sis­tance and re­turnto-cen­tre speed to suit their driv­ing styles. This was demon­strated for us around the track, with firmer and lighter

set­tings and the speed at which the wheel re­turns to cen­tre also shown.

A gen­tler driver, for ex­am­ple, may choose a lighter re­sis­tance and slower re­turn, while a more tena­cious driver or per­haps one used to heav­ier steer­ing set­ups may opt for a bit more re­sis­tance. A fleet truck with mul­ti­ple driv­ers can be per­son­alised, with driv­ers choos­ing their VDS set­tings and sav­ing them for when­ever they’re in that ve­hi­cle.

Steer­ing isn’t some­thing we are typ­i­cally used to ad­just­ing for our in­di­vid­ual driv­ing pref­er­ences, and this fea­ture is one that ul­ti­mately con­trib­utes to mak­ing the cab a more pleas­ant place to be.

“Each driver has a dif­fer­ent per­cep­tion of how light or heavy the steer­ing sys­tem should be,” Almqvist ex­plains.

“Now ev­ery driver can ad­just the steer­ing wheel re­sis­tance ex­actly as he or she wants for com­fort­able, re­laxed and safe driv­ing. This is a very prac­ti­cal fea­ture, not least for trucks that often have dif­fer­ent driv­ers.”

One of the other in­ter­est­ing VDS set­tings is the abil­ity to ad­just the ‘straight-ahead’ an­gle of the steer­ing, pre­vent­ing the need for counter steer­ing on long slanted roads or dur­ing heavy cross winds. The straight-ahead an­gle fea­ture was demon­strated on the day and it worked well, but the lane keep­ing did kick in to cor­rect the steer­ing once the road an­gle changed, which was as­sur­ing.

Hands off the wheel

The most im­pres­sive demon­stra­tion of the day was the three-truck pla­toon we rode along in, demon­strat­ing the tech­nol­ogy re­ally does work.

We took to the test truck, jump­ing on board the third truck in the pla­toon with Syd­ney-based Volvo Trucks driver devel­op­ment man­ager Per Bruun Hansen.

The first truck sets the pace while the sec­ond and then third truck are paired by driv­ers, set­ting a dis­tance of be­tween one and five sec­onds be­tween ve­hi­cles. As the third truck paired while the driver was still in con­trol from the hot seat, in this case Hansen, the truck be­gan to take over and drive it­self in per­fect har­mony with the two lead trucks.

This is the first time to our knowl­edge that me­dia has rid­den along in an ac­tive pla­toon, par­tic­u­larly one with au­tonomous steer­ing, and it was eerie to say the least.

As we were en­ter­ing a tight bend in the pla­toon, Hansen demon­strated that man­ual steer­ing in­puts are pos­si­ble and the sys­tem will still let a driver steer if they choose to do so.

Hansen ex­plained as he sat back and let the truck do the work, “when us Aus­tralians talk about pla­toon­ing it sort of goes over our head, be­cause we do pla­toon­ing al­ready,” re­fer­ring to road trains and other multi-trailer com­bi­na­tions.

This tech­nol­ogy does how­ever make sense in Europe, where a quad road train sim­ply isn’t prac­ti­cal, mean­ing the next best so­lu­tion may be pla­toon­ing.

When dis­cussing pla­toon­ing, Volvo Trucks di­rec­tor of au­tonomous so­lu­tions Sasko Cuk­lev ex­plains that a big ben­e­fit is re­mov­ing driver re­ac­tion time from the equa­tion.

“The first truck ac­cel­er­ates and the other ones will do it as well, and if you hit the brakes in the first, the other ones will hit the brakes at the same time in the same gear,” Cuk­lev says.

“You will not have to take into con­sid­er­a­tion re­ac­tion time, mean­ing that you can drive closer to each other in a safe man­ner and that re­duces drag.”

For the du­ra­tion of our time in the truck, the pla­toon­ing sys­tem worked flaw­lessly as the footage be­low shows, high­light­ing the ver­sa­til­ity of Volvo Trucks’ up­dated VDS sys­tem.

Re­mote con­trol

The abil­ity for the VDS sys­tem to steer a truck has al­lowed for ex­ter­nal steer­ing that doesn’t re­quire com­plex af­ter­mar­ket sys­tems and ded­i­cated re­mote use ve­hi­cles.

Oper­a­tors are able to use the VDS sys­tem to equip the truck with a re­mote-use sys­tem al­low­ing con­trol of the en­gine, steer­ing, brakes and lights at speeds of 10km/h or less.

This is aimed at road­works, min­ing, or any use re­quir­ing driv­ers to re­motely con­trol a truck, but with this sys­tem the ve­hi­cle can also be used in nor­mal op­er­a­tion.

“Typ­i­cally to­day you’d have to use a hy­draulic sys­tem and put a big mo­tor in­side the cab,” An­dreas­son ex­plains.

“We can utilise our Volvo dy­namic steer­ing so if you don’t want to you just take away the re­mote con­trol and it’s a nor­mal truck again.”

We were given a ride along in a re­mote-steered truck around a set course, but un­like other re­mote set­ups this was made pos­si­ble with­out the need for com­plex in-cab sys­tems, us­ing the VDS.

“We put the driver even more in charge of the truck than they are to­day.”

Left: A high-tech in­te­rior sug­gests this is no or­di­nary truck

Above: Li­dar sen­sors are used to spot ob­sta­cles and haz­ards

Above L to R: Carl Jo­han Almqvist dis­cussing the many safety ben­e­fits of the new VDS sys­tem; Lane Keep­ing As­sist is a game changer for Volvo, tak­ing it one step closer to the goal of zero truck ac­ci­dents

Top left: A demon­stra­tion of the Per­sonal Set­tings, ad­justed via the screen

Above left: Sasko Cuk­lev ex­plains the many ben­e­fits of pla­toon­ing, made pos­si­ble us­ing VDS

Right: The view from the pla­toon truck, as we set up to ‘pair’. The dis­play at the top of the wind­screen pro­vides a pla­toon sta­tus

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