The Volvo Concept Truck. Picture: VOLVO TRUCKS
The Volvo Concept Truck. Picture: VOLVO TRUCKS

Automation has played a key role in making lives easier by promoting efficiencies in the way we do things, particularly in business, which begs the question — how did we ever manage before this?

Technology is an integral part of our lives and continues to push the boundaries of what is possible. We recently travelled to Gothenburg, Sweden to attend Volvo Trucks’ Innovation Days, which is a workshop event showcasing the firm’s future technologies that will be part of its product offerings.

According to Hayder Wokil, mobility and automation director at Volvo Trucks, automation in its trucks is there to assist rather than replace the driver, something that remains a contentious topic when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

There are five levels of autonomous vehicle: driver assistance — no feet; partial automation — no hands; conditional automation — no eyes; high automation — no attention and full automation — no driver.

These are all created to provide key benefits for customers — namely productivity, safety and energy efficiency. These are currently being applied in international mine applications where fully autonomous trucks are improving the aforementioned aspects while eliminating inconsistency and downtime.

This is all easier when it’s a controlled environment, without the variables you find on a public road, for now at least.

Wokil was quick to mention that the technology is some way off as legislation of the technology is still under scrutiny by many stakeholders. In fact, the main challenges include the research and development times for technology as well as social acceptance — an issue that even the passenger car market is still grappling with.

This autonomous Volvo refuse truck can be operated by one driver without even being in the cab. Picture: VOLVO TRUCKS
This autonomous Volvo refuse truck can be operated by one driver without even being in the cab. Picture: VOLVO TRUCKS

The latter is more relevant in the commercial vehicle sector as it stems from whether the technology will render human intervention obsolete, which could lead to huge job losses.

Aircraft have for years been using autopilot once at cruising altitude, but the pilot still oversees the entire process. Then there is the legal aspect as to who will be responsible for accidents — the truck maker or the technology developer.

Enabling technology is what the company keeps punting, such as its i-Shift gearbox, which increases efficiency by changing gears relative to load and gradient of the road ahead. There is also Automated Emergency Braking, which brings the truck to a stop should the driver’s attention wander off the road, oblivious of a stationary vehicle in its path. We tried it and it works an absolute treat.

Better uptime

Meanwhile, the Volvo Dynamic Steering eases driver inputs, as it can easily self-centre itself, is easy to operate and is said to prevent strain on the driver’s upper body. It might seem like trivial things, but collectively it could mean better uptime for fleet owners.

Then there is platooning, which is essentially an automated ability for two or more trucks to follow the same trajectory, guided by the lead truck driver to guide the rest of the driverless trucks on his/her route, monitoring following distance, braking and accelerating. Of course, it remains a technology more suited to controlled environments such as large depots or mine quarries, but that did not stop Volvo Trucks from participating, together with five other European truck makers, in a cross-boarder test sojourn from Gothenburg, Sweden to Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2016, which was a great success.

The exercise was also to see whether the technology can be standardised across various manufacturers, which can save on development costs and timelines to launch to market. Talks are still ongoing to see how the manufacturers can collaborate on the project, but more importantly to overcome regulations needed to make self-driving transportation a reality.

Pilot projects

There are currently pilot projects in place for various forms of autonomy, including one with a Renova refuse truck in Sweden which the driver can control remotely from outside to move from one bin to the next without having to hop in and out of the vehicle. It works well, but once again the challenge in SA is that there are at least three guys manually disposing bin contents into the refuse truck, so could this also render them obsolete once such automation arrives on our shores.

These are but some of the challenges the technology needs to overcome and likely it will all need to be adapted for various markets in order for it to be accepted. While the technology is still in its prototype stages, it is fascinating to see it in action and the possibilities it brings to the commercial market for future safety and efficiencies.