The fu­ture of trucks is here!

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Front Page -

et’s talk about one of the most piv­otal rev­o­lu­tions we’ve seen in tech­nol­ogy: con­tainer­i­sa­tion. Glob­al­i­sa­tion and seam­less, mod­ern in­ter­na­tional trade only ex­ist be­cause of the ISO con­tainer and its mul­ti­modal abil­i­ties. The iphone, for in­stance, couldn’t be made from African cobalt and cop­per or even make it into your near­est is­tore with­out a con­tainer.

The most pop­u­lar, cost-ef­fec­tive way to move that con­tainer from ship or train to its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is by truck.

From James Brind­ley’s 1766 nar­row­boat so­lu­tion to fa­cil­i­tate coal trans­port be­tween Wor­ley Delph and Manch­ester, to Sil­vio Crespi’s 1928 idea to stan­dard­ise a con­tainer sys­tem for both road- and rail trans­port, we have al­ways strived to find more ef­fi­cient ways of mov­ing things. Cur­rently the great­est in­ef­fi­ciency is, un­for­tu­nately, those cheap trucks.

Elon Musk’s well-doc­u­mented grand plan is to elec­trify the bulk of trans­port with su­per fast semi-trailer trucks. He is on to some­thing, although the launch pric­ing of R2 mil­lion and R2,4 mil­lion for the re­spec­tive 480 km and 800 km units feels a bit low for cur­rent bat­tery pric­ing. The trucks would need 550 and 900 kwh bat­ter­ies to achieve the stated range in ideal con­di­tions.

The es­ti­mated cost for the bat­ter­ies alone is R1,4 mil­lion and R2,4 mil­lion. While it helps that Tesla also pro­duces bat­ter­ies and that costs should re­duce at the scale of the ini­tial pre-or­ders (as we re­ported in May, Pep­sico and UPS have each or­dered 100 trucks or more), those low prof­its won’t please Tesla in­vestors.

There’s also the mat­ter of undis­closed un­laden weight. Those bat­ter­ies weigh in at five and eight tons, which leaves am­ple haul­ing ca­pac­ity for goods with power go­ing to four wheels via the same mo­tors used in the Model 3.

It seems that for now, the num­bers are in the favour of South Africa’s prodi­gal son and his deep-pock­eted cus­tomers, es­pe­cially in the US with its so­phis­ti­cated charg­ing in­fra­struc­ture. Down here at the south­ern tip of Africa, how­ever, we’re not quite ready for large-scale trans­port elec­tri­fi­ca­tion just yet. And nei­ther, it would ap­pear, is con­ti­nen­tal Europe. There are other tech­nolo­gies we are ready to adopt, though.

Road trains are a reg­u­lar sight in the Aus­tralian Out­back and even in the less de­vel­oped parts of our coun­try, but tech­nol­ogy is about to take this con­cept to the high­ways. A 2018 re­port by the US Na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Lab­o­ra­tory used data it got from The Volpe Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Cen­ter, Na­tional Re­search Cen­tre Canada and Auburn Univer­sity track tests to ar­rive at this con­clu­sion: Draft­ing, or tail­gat­ing, is a more ef­fi­cient way to drive trucks.

Truck pla­toon­ing (driv­ing a train of trucks close to each other) was found to have the po­ten­tial for a 3–6 per cent re­duc­tion in fuel use, av­er­aged over the pla­toon. Those in­di­cated sav­ings caught the in­ter­ests of pri­vate in­dus­try and Volvo, UPS, Nokia, In­tel and Lock­heed Martin are all in­vested in the fu­ture growth of this tech­nol­ogy.

Volvo is so en­thused by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this tech­nique that it flew Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics out to the Stora Holm test­ing cen­tre in Gothen­burg on a typ­i­cally rainy sum­mer’s day.

Pla­toon­ing in the Volvo Trucks sense is done by us­ing a wire­less data link be­tween three trucks and then only con­trol­ling the front one. A wire­less data link of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to have other road traf­fic weav­ing be­tween the trucks in real- world con­di­tions, as op­posed to a me­chan­i­cal link. That does de­tract from the ac­tual rea­son for these road trains, but al­lows for greater flex­i­bil­ity and makes a bet­ter plat­form for Volvo (trucks, not cars – two sep­a­rate com­pa­nies) to flex its in­no­va­tion mus­cle on the road.

The whole pla­toon­ing sys­tem is only made pos­si­ble by the crown jewel in Volvo Trucks’ im­pres­sive tech­nol­ogy suite: Volvo Dy­namic Steer­ing ( VDS).

‘Af­ter hav­ing this sys­tem for five years, we’re now at a point where the driver has full con­trol over the ve­hi­cle in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions,’ ex­plains Ulf An­dreas­son, prod­uct range re­quire­ment man­ager for Volvo’s FM and FMX heavy-truck ranges. The lat­est evo­lu­tion of VDS also adds ac­tive lane-keep­ing and cus­tomis­able driver pro­grammes to the laun­dry list of in­dus­try-lead­ing abil­i­ties the orig­i­nal sys­tem brought to mar­ket in 2013.

Let’s walk it back a bit: VDS is an elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled gear that goes on top of the hy­draulic steer­ing gear. Be­sides for ad­just­ing the steer­ing weight dy­nam­i­cally ac­cord­ing to con­di­tions, the sys­tem will also com­pen­sate for cross­winds as well as road im­per­fec­tions. Im­prove­ments for 2018 in­clude the afore­men­tioned ac­tive lane-keep­ing and takes cross- wind con­trol a step fur­ther by adding a driver-ad­justable cen­tre point for the steer­ing wheel.

An­dreas­son showed off the party trick of this steer­ing in­no­va­tion by load­ing us into a truck with no driver in it and then con­trol­ling the truck via re­mote like some sadis­tic video game. It be­came ap­par­ent later that Europe has been us­ing re­mote­con­trolled trucks for years for work­ing in tricky ter­rain like forests and moun­tain slopes where rollovers hap­pen fre­quently. Tech­nol­ogy tak­ing the risks in­stead of hu­mans has al­ways been the dream.

In the fu­ture, you could have a con­voy of au­ton­o­mous trucks, led by one driver in the lead truck. When the con­voy en­ters


the de­pot or load­ing area, an op­er­a­tor could then take over via re­mote con­trol and move the ve­hi­cles into po­si­tion to be loaded or un­loaded.

We asked Volvo Trucks about this, but the com­pany couldn’t com­ment on this the­ory be­cause of its par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Euro­pean Truck Pla­toon­ing Chal­lenge.

The big­gest ob­sta­cle for au­ton­o­mous long-haul pla­toon­ing in con­ti­nen­tal Europe is cross­ing in­ter­na­tional bor­ders. Dif­fer­ent coun­tries have dif­fer­ent le­gal frame­work re­lat­ing both to trucks and to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, which is ham­per­ing de­vel­op­ment. In cer­tain coun­tries, for in­stance, the pla­toon is re­garded as one ve­hi­cle and then needs to meet length re­stric­tions, as well as be­ing sub­ject to a dif­fer­ent set of taxes.

Un­like what we dis­cov­ered with au­ton­o­mous cars last month (Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics July 2018, page 58) com­mer­cial truck­ing ac­tu­ally has fully op­er­a­tional pro­to­types for the var­i­ous au­ton­o­mous ap­pli­ca­tions. You have driver­less ve­hi­cles oper­at­ing in many con­trolled en­vi­ron­ments such as mines and ship­ping de­pots. The big ad­van­tage here, though, is that you can de­velop this for spe­cific cir­cum­stances and keep the oper­at­ing ar­eas away from where hu­man work­ers would be.

Au­ton­o­mous and Au­to­mated Driv­ing Di­rec­tor Hay­der Wokil be­lieves that our au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy is now about at the peak of in­flated ex­pec­ta­tions in its hype cy­cle. But that’s with re­gards to ap­pli­ca­tions on pub­lic roads. He iden­ti­fies three hoops that the tech­nol­ogy needs to jump through be­fore we can ex­pe­ri­ence widespread adop­tion: le­gal as­pect, so­cial ac­cep­tance and then fur­ther tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ment to per­fect it.

‘Aero­planes can take off, land and fly au­tonomously since the sev­en­ties, but no one thinks about it. The pi­lot is just there if some­thing goes wrong with the sys­tems,’ he says. ‘But that can only hap­pen be­cause there have been no sig­nif­i­cant in­ci­dents. The dif­fi­cul­ties we face is that we need to do the test­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion.’ He is re­fer­ring to the pla­toon­ing, specif­i­cally. It works fine in a con­fined en­vi­ron­ment, but can only re­ally be tested on the roads.

‘It will take decades be­fore we have level 5 au­ton­o­mous sys­tems that adapt to weather con­di­tions and oper­at­ing con­di­tions that are a big chal­lenge. We then need to ver­ify it in all pos­si­ble con­di­tions so it can be safe in the hands of cus­tomers,’ says Wokil. ‘It’s one thing to do these demos, but another to hand it to you as a driver or cus­tomer. We need to de­velop sys­tems that are user friendly.’

If you add elec­tri­fi­ca­tion into the pla­toon equa­tion, you could have even more sav­ings. Cur­rently, Volvo’s short­term de­vel­op­ment is fo­cused around po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives to diesel. The fron­trun­ner is liq­uid nat­u­ral gas, or LNG, and its 20 per cent fuel po­ten­tial (fuel po­ten­tial is the al­ter­na­tive’s to­tal po­ten­tial mar­ket share). This rel­a­tively low po­ten­tial mar­ket share takes into ac­count the global ac­cess to LNG and the fu­ture tran­si­tion to elec­tric. Out of all the al­ter­na­tive fu­els, elec­tric­ity and meth­ane are def­i­nitely the en­ergy sources of the fu­ture (with hy­dro­gen still some way off), but LNG (in­clud­ing bio-lng)

is avail­able at rel­a­tive scale right now and Volvo is adapt­ing the cur­rent diesel en­gine de­sign to op­er­ate on LNG, with im­pres­sive re­sults. The cur­rent Volvo Trucks gas en­gines (adapted from its tra­di­tional diesel en­gines) are prov­ing 20 per cent more ef­fi­cient than Otto gas en­gines.

Volvo isn’t sleep­ing on elec­tric long­haul, though. It is, af­ter all, 72 per cent of the Euro­pean trans­port mar­ket. It’s grand plan? The Long Haul Hy­brid truck and its stated 30 per cent fuel sav­ings. To­tal sav­ings are tal­lied up from three sources: 10 per cent is saved through aero­dy­namic im­prove­ments, 10 per cent comes cour­tesy of spe­cially de­vel­oped new tyres – which will even­tu­ally be made avail­able to the en­tire truck­ing com­mu­nity – and the fi­nal third can be at­trib­uted to the diesel-elec­tric hy­brid tech­nol­ogy in place.

‘By mak­ing the truck fully elec­tric, you then have the po­ten­tial to run it on bat­ter­ies or on a fuel cell,’ ex­plains Lars Mårtens­son, di­rec­tor of en­vi­ron­ment and in­no­va­tion at Volvo Trucks. ‘ The prob­lem with fuel cells is the cost and per­for­mance. If you’re go­ing to use hy­dro­gen, how is that hy­dro­gen be­ing pro­duced in a cost-ef­fi­cient way? The door­way to hy­dro­gen isn’t closed, but noth­ing will hap­pen there in the short term. For re­gional and long-haul, LNG is our fuel of choice. In­ter­na­tion­ally LNG is be­tween 30 and 70 per cent cheaper than diesel, so for our cus­tomers, it’s a very good busi­ness case.’

There’s no pos­si­bil­ity to run tra­di­tional diesel on the Volvo gas en­gines, though, even though they are ba­si­cally the same en­gine. But the com­pany’s re­lent­less fo­cus on cus­tomer eco­nom­ics is truly re­mark­able. While a com­pany such as Tesla shows its start-up dress slip by play­ing fast and loose with prof­its to gain mar­ket trac­tion, one of the world’s lead­ing truck brands is slowly evolv­ing and still main­tain­ing its num­ber-one cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and de­sir­abil­ity sta­tus at the same time.

There’s is, how­ever, a zero-emis­sions strat­egy at play. Ex­cept, for Volvo, that in­cludes noise emis­sions. That’s why, in­stead of want­ing to rule the open road with amaz­ingly fast long-haul beasts, the com­pany is in­stead show­ing a noc­tur­nal streak. You see, most ma­jor Euro­pean cities have noise-pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tions at night. Volvo want to cap­ture that mar­ket by in­tro­duc­ing medium-duty elec­tric trucks that can do silent de­liv­er­ies and waste re­moval.

The com­pany has part­nered with its home­town of Gothen­burg and Ham­burg in Ger­many to de­velop an elec­tric refuse

truck that draws on the com­pany’s ex­pe­ri­ence in elec­tric busses. The city of Gothen­burg, ac­cord­ing to its head of ur­ban trans­port ad­min­is­tra­tion, Malin Bro­qvist An­der­s­son, wants to be car­bon neu­tral by 2045. Be­yond this, the city is pre­dicted to add 150 000 new res­i­dents by 2035. Keep­ing those res­i­dents safe has be­come a holis­tic ap­proach, which fac­tors in noise pol­lu­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal stress. Elec­tric mo­bil­ity is a big part of that ap­proach.

Un­der cur­rent work­loads, these FE and FL trucks will burn through about 60 kwh of bat­tery per 10 tons of refuse. Volvo of­fers a mod­u­lar bat­tery sys­tem al­low­ing cus­tomers to choose their needed ca­pac­ity and per­for­mance, and have even de­vel­oped a tool to as­sist that choice. The 50 kwh bat­tery unit weighs in at a hefty 520 kg and the trucks emit 69 db of driveby noise. Volvo Trucks first in­tro­duced elec­tric buses in 2015, so the com­pany is build­ing this strat­egy on its ex­pe­ri­ence in ur­ban mo­bil­ity.

‘ We need a long cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process be­fore we can drive them (the elec­tric trucks) in real city en­vi­ron­ments,’ says Anna Thordén, Volvo’s prod­uct man­ager for elec­tro­mo­bil­ity. ‘ This project has been in de­vel­op­ment for over a year, but since the 600 V com­po­nents are the same as in the bus, it was a very quick project. We have de­vel­oped unique com­po­nents such as the air com­pres­sor and there we took tech­nol­ogy from the med­i­cal in­dus­try and adapted it to the truck en­vi­ron­ment.’

What the trucks lose from the buses is the nifty over­head fast charg­ing, mainly be­cause it’s very ex­pen­sive to in­stall the pan­to­graph used to charge them. They can, how­ever, be fit­ted with the charg­ing rails if the in­fra­struc­ture is in place.

‘ We found that you can use the elec­tric mo­tor more ef­fi­ciently with a two-speed gear­box, which al­lows us to have a smaller elec­tric mo­tor with good drive­abil­ity at low speeds and still a high top speed.’

Thordén started in Re­search and De­vel­op­ment and was a project man­ager there for the launch of the hy­brid buses in 2010 be­fore she tran­si­tioned over to the trucks.

Of course, safety is a ma­jor con­cern for Volvo Trucks and new prod­ucts will be fit­ted with for­ward col­li­sion de­tec­tion and au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing. The com­pany is also in­ter­fac­ing with its sis­ter car brand and rolling out a cloud-based con­nected so­lu­tion that can give peer-topeer (car-to-truck) early warn­ing of any up­com­ing road haz­ards. With re­gard to pedes­trian safety, the com­pany is also ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren about vis­i­bil­ity with its See and be Seen ini­tia­tive.

The fu­ture will be­long to elec­tri­fied trucks, but the im­me­di­ate fu­ture is still re­liant on cheap sources of fuel, or rather serv­ing a cus­tomer base out­side of highly de­vel­oped coun­tries.

Truck­ing is a game of eco­nom­ics and Volvo Trucks is spread­ing its in­flu­ence to all cor­ners of the mar­ket.

LEFT: Ulf An­dreas­son demon­strates the full re­mote-con­trol func­tion­al­ity that is en­abled by Volvo Dy­namic Steer­ing tech­nol­ogy.

LEFT: The Volvo Trucks dream is to op­er­ate in Euro­pean cities at night, as well as zero road fa­tal­i­ties by 2030. BOT­TOM RIGHT: Au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing was one of many break­through in­no­va­tions on dis­play.

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