The future of trucks is here!
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
ROAD PLATOONS CAN SAVE UP TO 6% FUEL ACROSS THE FLEET. THIS METHOD CAN ALSO ALLOW FOR AUTONOMOUS DRIVING, BECAUSE THE LEAD TRUCK IS WIRELESSLY LINKED TO THE FLEET
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.