The possibilities of automated technology undoubtedly inspire a kind of anticipation and fantasy within many of us. Yet such advanced science is already being put to practical use in many industries. Businesses today face ever-increasing competition, and automation has presented the opportunity to improve productivity, lower energy consumption, and increase safety.
Volvo Trucks has been at the forefront of this automated evolution for over two decades. The I-Shift automated gearbox has been on the market since the early 2000s, while active safety systems such as Adaptive Cruise Control and Collision Warning with Emergency Brake have set standards as industry leaders in the last few years. As automation advances, new solutions and services and an evolving business model are the inevitable result.
The automated solutions currently being developed at Volvo Trucks place the human very much at the centre. The technology might involve replacing the characteristics of a human with those of a machine, but the focus is totally based on the customer experience. Mikael Karlsson is Vice President of Productivity & New Concepts. “We are creating a new kind of automation that is being introduced stepwise to complement the driving experience. This is a key enabler for increased productivity. By working with customers who want to have a solution, we try to understand their problems and work with them to create something in partnership.”
Our work is about where the technology meets the customer benefit. As a starting point, we look at the demands put on customers by their customers.
Bringing the customer onboard early in the automation development process is particularly important. The teams at Volvo Trucks work on a series of small pilots, which are constantly at various stages of completion. These pilots help to establish if a solution is viable in practice, and are ideally road-tested in collaboration with the customer they are being designed for. “We learn fast through quick sprints if a particular solution will help the customer,” continues Mikael Karlsson. “This is a software-driven approach, in which we are looking at taking a broader part of the value chain. As well as working with small pilots, we also use the ‘rubber-band’ analogy, fixing our minds on the future and letting the pilot drag us towards our goal.”
Volvo Trucks’ automation strategy is being developed on two fronts. Firstly they work with confined areas such as mines, private yards and harbours, and secondly onroad. “We believe that a high automation level will be achieved earlier in confined areas, as there is often a less complex traffic system,” says Sasko Cuklev, Director Customer Solutions & New Concepts. “Employing automation on public roads is much more complex. As confined areas are often private land and therefore not subject to restrictions, we are able to test solutions more quickly to capture value. We can learn a lot from confined areas and use the information for public road solutions.”
The emphasis on working on pilots lasting from six months to a year and a half means that the results can quickly be applied and the benefits reaped. Hayder Wokil is Autonomous & Automated Driving Director. “Our work is about where the technology meets the customer benefit. As a starting point, we look at the demands put on customers by their customers. We are focused on solutions that can make difficult, repetitive and time-consuming tasks easier for all concerned. For example, automated technology can be introduced at terminals where a lot of loading and unloading is taking place, and where trucks are doing a lot of reversing. This helps to avoid minor accidents, minimising truck damage and maximising uptime.”
One aspect of the automation process that is clear from talking to those involved is the important role of the driver, whether actively or passively. “This is all about making the driver’s work safer and easier and the customer’s business better,” says Sasko Cuklev. “In Brazil, we are working with a client who has a sugar cane crop. They were losing a significant part of their future harvest due to workers driving over the crops. By operating autopilot, the drivers can drive in a preset line and avoid destroying the cane. Optimising driving speed is another area that we have looked into. Drivers use up excessive energy by driving too fast and then having to wait. We can help to reduce energy consumption by offering guidance on the appropriate speed to drive.”
This is all about making the driver’s work safer and easier and the customer’s business better.
The concept of self-driving trucks is perhaps a strange and slightly unsettling one for some. However, this kind of automation is already making a difference in confined areas. Volvo Trucks is testing self-driving trucks that can keep working directly after blasting is taking place in mines. In normal circumstances a significant wait would be required before continuing. This increases both productivity and safety, as well as incurring less wear and tear on the truck when an automated driver is in control. Onroad, trucks can save energy when connected to each other on highways. Platooning has the effect of reducing air drag, as trucks can drive close in a controlled convoy. Some automated systems are closer to becoming everyday reality than others, but many have a huge array of potential benefits – and make the working environment much safer.
Volvo Trucks has launched several active safety systems in the last few years, all of which rely on advanced automation. Collision Warning with Emergency Brake and Lane Keeping Support use radar and camera to provide the driver with information, complementing their behaviour, warning them of any imminent danger and, in an eventuality, preventing an accident. “Safety is the foundation for automation,” says Carl Johan Almqvist, Safety Director. “Without safety as a base, we won’t ever see autonomous vehicles. That’s why we need to continuously improve our safety systems. It is important to stress that our philosophy is always based on the driver. We work with fundamental elements – visibility, vehicle handling, brakes. Even with something as potentially game-changing as automation, the challenges we face are familiar – driver distractions in many forms. In the future, the systems that we have already developed will continue to be updated with better sensors, improved programming and upgraded cameras. The challenge is to take all the information being gathered and process it to benefit the driver to an even greater degree.”
A change in business model could be the outcome of the rapid advancement in automation technology. “We believe there will be an increase in selling services and solutions, in addition to more traditional products and features,” says Sasko Cuklev. “Our approach is of course driver-centric, yet the possibilities offered by providing self-driving transport from for example hub-to-hub can open up a new way of working.”
Maintaining a close and open dialogue with customers is a crucial element to the progress of the automation work, according to the team. “Customers love to be involved and engaged in the future developments,” says Hayder Wokil. “When it comes to fine-tuning the solutions, we involve the customers who tell us what they think. We can’t pretend to be the experts, it is the customer who is the expert in their industry. It is therefore vital that we maintain a feedback flow at every stage of the process to gain a deep understanding of the customer.”
Sometimes it is the craziest ideas that become reality.
The automation work taking place in Gothenburg continues a tradition of innovation which has seen Volvo Trucks become a global leader in producing advanced solutions. Achieving this success has required a combination of free-thinking and pragmatism, acknowledges Hayder Wokil. “Sometimes it is the craziest ideas that become reality. Yet everything we do must have a purpose. Whatever we introduce to the market should make sense for the driver, for the customer, and for society in general.”
Boliden mine, Sweden
Self-driving Volvo FMX trucks are being tested in regular operations at Boliden. The trucks contribute to increasing productivity and safety, as they can keep working directly after blasting is taking place. Normally a wait is required before work can commence. This is an example of full automation in a confined area, where no driver is needed.
Renova refuse truck, Sweden
There is a risk of accidents when refuse trucks reverse in housing areas. With a self-driving truck, only one driver is required. The truck reverses automatically, following the driver around houses collecting refuse. This research project with Swedish recycling company Renova helps to increase both productivity and safety.
Sugar cane harvesting, Brazil
A prime example of how automated technology can contribute to profitability. Trucks were previously destroying a significant percentage of this Brazilian sugar cane farmer’s harvest. Using an automated function, the truck follows the harvesters’ footsteps. The driver accelerates and brakes, but is supported by automatic steering. Thus, a great deal of the harvest is saved.
Using connectivity, trucks in a platoon or road-train can communicate with each other. Distance, speed and braking can all be controlled. The follower trucks use radar and camera and receive information from the trucks in front. Today, the average platoon can save up to 10 per cent of a truck’s fuel consumption. This figure will rise to 15 per cent in the coming decade, as trucks drive closer and closer to each other. CO₂ emissions are also reduced as a result of fuel being saved, while safety is increased by the connected trucks sharing information.