AUTONOMOUS IN ACTION
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.”
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.
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