Volvo Sees Automated Trucks Off-Road Before On-Highway

Tom Berg, Truck Editor | September 26, 2017
Volvo VHD heavy truck spreads gravel

Much of the buzz about automated trucks is about long-haul highway operations, including “platooning” of two or more tractor-trailers carrying freight. But automation is already at work in mining and other off-road applications, and could well appear in on/off-road construction trucks in the next few years, said Volvo Truck executives during a Monday presentation at a truck show in Atlanta.

Automation is one of three major areas of development, said Keith Brandis, Volvo’s director of product planning. The others are “electromobility,” or electric powertrains that will be offered in the next few years, and connectivity through telematics, which Volvo and other truck makers have been rolling out in the last several years.

He and other Volvo executives spoke at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show, being held for the first time in the Georgia capital. Volvo, Mack, Daimler Trucks North America and Navistar International have deserted the huge annual show in Louisville in favor of a more focused venue that will run every other year.  The next one will be in October 2019.

Autonomous operations are most easily effected in closed areas that see no interference from other trucks and cars on public roads, Brandis said. That’s why self-guided haul trucks can run in mines in Europe and Australia. The same principles can be used at job sites and in repetitious routes in the U.S. He gave two examples:

A dump truck can be programmed to seek out a wheel loader or excavator on a construction site or quarry, and automatically drive to its area, then back into position. Both vehicles would use the same telematics connections, and in Volvo’s case that would be easy because divisions of Volvo Group make both types of equipment. Geofencing would confine a truck to the site for the automated portion of a trip, and the driver could take over when the truck returns to public roads.

A normal dump truck hauls material to or from a work site, making multiple trips over the same public streets and roads. Using GPS locating, the truck could map the route on the first round trip, and self-guiding equipment would then take over the driving on subsequent trips.

A truck is in heavy stop-and-go traffic on a street or freeway, so the driver engages a “proceed in queue” function where the truck stops and starts in response to movement of other vehicles just ahead.

In all examples, a driver would still be needed to handle any situations that the automation cannot, such as emergency stops, sudden blockages on a route, reacting to police inquiries, and handling new assignments. But the driver’s workload would be greatly reduced and he would remain alert, enhancing safety.

Of course, trucks would need automated or automatic transmissions to operate, and electronically controlled steering and braking to move. Such components are available now, and so is GPS mapping through advanced forms of cruise control. So, using automation is a matter of users wanting to employ it, vehicle builders working to integrate systems aboard trucks, and safety authorities willing to allow such operations.

“We do not see a world that does not have truck drivers,” said Goran Nyberg, the company’s president. He compared autonomous truck operations with aircraft that for many years have flown on their own using autopilots. “But when the aircraft needs a (human) pilot, it really needs a pilot.”