When T&FME last met with Volvo Trucks to discuss its autonomous vehicle development, the company seemed hesitant to share much detail on its work apart from an overview of some pilot trials it had underway. However, a major announcement in September last year suggests that the company was a lot further ahead than it was prepared to let on.
Up to this point, some may claim both inside and outside Volvo Trucks that the company has been characteristically ‘Swedish’ about its work in the field of vehicle autonomy. The company refuses – perhaps wisely – to put a timeline on when it will begin to put autonomous vehicles into the market and instead has been content to talk about its work in confined and controlled environments, such as the sugar cane fields of Brazil, the remote mines of northern Sweden and short-run waste pick-ups with Renova.
All those above the line acts in its autonomous development have all shared a similar approach in bolting on the next generation systems to its platforms such as the FL and the FMX. With each of them, Volvo Trucks engineers have seemingly carried on the company’s mantra of adapting and fusing its existing semi-autonomous safety tech to peer into the future – cautiously.
However, this changed going into the final quarter of 2018 with the company’s first true concept vehicle, Vera, in years. When a company that is as admired and revered for its safety-first approach to all things commercial vehicles comes out blazing: “This is Vera – A vehicle like no other seen from us before”, then there’s cause to sit up and take notice.
Described as an autonomous, electric vehicle that can operate with significantly less exhaust emissions and low noise levels, Vera is intended to be a closed-environment trailer carrier. The concept is simple: a container/trailer is delivered into a logistics hub and then pulled by the vehicle to the truck that will take the load to the final destination. All of this process is controlled and monitored via a control centre with the potential, Volvo Trucks claims, to make transportation safer, cleaner and more efficient.
While that in itself echoes the company’s familiar tone, Vera isn’t your typical commercial vehicle workhorse it is destined to be. Lowly slung, sporty, it looks like a warm summer’s school paper doodle of the vehicle of the future.
Mikael Karlsson, VP Autonomous Solutions, Volvo Trucks argues that “bold innovation and a willingness to be daring” is part of Volvo Trucks’ DNA.
“Traditionally we have taken a step-by-step approach to product development, but as someone once said to me, ‘you cannot build a ladder to the moon’, It might feel like you’re getting closer, but you will never get there. You need to do something radically different. When we started this project, we began by putting ourselves in a future scenario and asking what would be the ideal transport solution,” he says. “We then used a rubber band approach, where we stretched our insights back and looked at what we could do already today to reach our vision. Vera is essentially our way of building something that can take us into the future.”
Vera is still very much the concept vehicle it resembles but Volvo Trucks is clear that it complements its current offering. The vehicle is still under development with the company committed to taking steps to secure safety aspects and, as Karlsson puts it, “deliver a premium experience to our customers.”
Helene Mellquist, SVP, Volvo Trucks International, tells T&FME that Vera is close to being ready to be placed into real-life, pilot trials.
“You may have seen a couple of years ago the video we made about the logistics of the future, well now it is here. We made it,” she remarks, adding that the name means both that Volvo is moving to an a new era and ‘faith’, “I’m not sure I’m allowed to say that,” she grins.
“This is an autonomous electric vehicle. It’s also a source of lower emissions and of course the low noise levels. And it also brings new things in how you can use it. It’s a compliment to today’s solutions. It’s very much for hubs where you have confined areas, such as at a port or from end to the other of a logistics centre. This is where you will see these first,” she explains. “I think it will take some time before we see these things running around the city. The technology is not mature enough to handle things like highways.”
When asked when Vera could be out in the wild, she tells T&FME that the company plans to follow the same approach that has worked with its other autonomous vehicles projects, such as the aforementioned fully self-driving trucks currently running underground at Kristineberg Mine.
“We are piloting lot of things with customers as you know right now and that is how we will continue to do these concepts,” says Mellquist. “You saw the mine in northern Sweden and we are looking for that kind of collaboration because then we can test it and industrialise it. I think many of us do not really know what happens when you put these things into practice.”
Although Vera could potentially be deployed at a port such as Gothenburg or Rotterdam, Mellquist stress that there needs to be infrastructure built around it, such as the required digital network and the beacons used by the vehicle to track its location. Using Vera will need not only a willing port or logistics operator but also a partner to provide the digital infrastructure.
She adds: “There is a whole solution you need to ‘sell’, so there’s so much more intelligence and infrastructure that works with that data.”
T&FME asks whether Mellquist believes there is enough collaboration within the industry to help accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles. Wouldn’t the millions being invested be better used if more companies worked together?
“I’m a firm believer in the market economy. I think competition is where you actually get things done quickly because if you do it in a too controlled environment then you need to make a lot of compromises and it gets slower,” she remarks. “If we can do this like this in the market and let the best man win, I think that’s when you get faster.”
Other industries have seen so-called disrupters enter with new technology that offers something new but also threatens the investment made by the major companies in the field. Mellquist says that entering the commercial vehicles market isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
“I think we see a lot of players coming in and trying to steal parts of the business. But there are other barriers to entry that we actually control,” she explains. “You have the whole dealer network, the whole contact with the customers which is not easy to do. Some of our new competitors are struggling with just production. So there’s a lot of things that being in this industry for 90 years that we bring along and a lot of knowledge. We know our customers, we know what they want. So some of these startup companies are contacting us.”
It is impossible to separate the drive towards autonomous vehicles without considering the lack of skilled drivers in many areas, the Middle East included. Mellquist says that autonomy solves issues she is seeing across the globe when she travels.
“Some of the regions want autonomous vehicles because the biggest cost is the drivers. In others, they say they can’t find skilled drivers.”
Vera may be an entirely new concept from Volvo Trucks but the main focus at the company remains its progress in evolving its truck technology towards greater semi-autonomy on highways. Hayder Wokil, Autonomous & Automated Driving director for Volvo Trucks, says the company is happy to take its time to ensure vehicles can be considered to safe for purpose.
“Why don’t we focus on higher levels of technology? I think the risk there is that you do a big leap but then miss a lot. We want to take a step-wise approach. By introducing things in closed areas and at low speeds you will learn a lot,” he says.
T&FME asks whether some companies have over-promised the potential of the technology and could deter governments from allowing the technology onto roads, particularly with recent high-profile accidents involving autonomous vehicles in mind?
“I don’t like to comment on other people or companies. When we started this, we looked at our home, our family and asked where are we with this and where do we want to be when it comes to automation? What kind of automated features brings values to stakeholders” He answers.
“We have our own agenda that we stick to and we will follow. This is very clear for us. We are a driver centric company. We will keep being a driver centric company reducing functions to assist the driver. We see that there is a potential and some ways today in some types of transport. We study each process, identifying how can we bring more value, reduce or get rid of the waste in the process for our customers. If we have a solution for it, yes, we bring it at once.”
According to Wokil, Volvo Trucks’ customers are increasingly interested in the trucks, running their own calculations to see what positive impact semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles could have on their businesses. The company is allowing them to be involved in product development to identify their pain spots, “we usually have clinics or we go to the customers are talk them about what features can reduce them.”
Volvo has a whole series of features that are precurssors to semi-autonomous trucks, such as lane-keeping assist, which pulls the truck back into its lane if it begins to drift, and its collision earning/Early Braking system which will bring the truck to a stop to prevent an accident. Effectively these systems are overriding the driver. They may be making the truck safer on the road but there is a risk that they are also taking the company further away from its driver-centric approach. Wokil stresses the priority will always be driver and other road-user safety.
“We are addressing a safety issues and the statistics suggest we are succeeding in reducing the number of accidents, including fatal ones,” he says proudly.
The ultimate level of autonomy that the industry is working towards is Level 5 – where it is possible to send a vehicle onto the road without a driver. Wokil does not think we will see these vehicles in the near future.
“I think it will take decades more than years to achieve level 5. I think it’s the interaction between different objects and the trucks that makes it very difficult. You need to identify where is the hazard to avoid but at the same time there are some a lot of inputs that you get from the road that you shouldn’t stop for.
“I put it in a simple example, if run into a balloon then you will cause no damage, not to the trucks, not the balloon itself, but how do you sort out that this is not something that I need to stop the truck for? Stopping the truck will reduce the productivity and the speed for the whole traffic. How can you avoid a human being who stands still compared with a human being who is moving? It is very complicated to manage level five in all road and weather conditions.”
“The more I am involved in this, the more I appreciate the human brain and how we can predict, analyse and can take measures to avoid accidents.”
Mikael Karlsson, Vice President Autonomous Solutions, Volvo Trucks talks Vera
What does Vera offer customers?
For Volvo Trucks it is important to offer a premium experience, giving our customers peace of mind and trouble-free transport solutions. We believe that Vera can take us further on this journey.
How will it impact the transport industry?
In places like ports and mega-logistics centres, I think we will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity. Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimise stock piles and increase overall productivity.
How will it impact society?
Round the clock operations could mean faster delivery times for consumer products. Moreover, since the vehicles are electric, society can benefit from reduced noise, road congestion and exhaust emissions.
Is the technology proven?
In creating Vera, we are integrating new technology, both in the vehicle and in the surrounding infrastructure, which involves a lot of testing to ensure it works together. However, since a lot of the base technology comes from our platform approach at Volvo Trucks, it has to a high extent already been tested. For instance, the electric driveline is the same driveline used in our electric trucks, which has been presented to the market.
How will this affect truck drivers?
Obviously, this will affect drivers in these applications, but in the big picture we foresee an increased need for skilled drivers. I strongly believe that technology drives prosperity and takes society forward. In many factories today, some parts of the production are highly automated while some still need to be operated by people. I believe that the transport industry will evolve the same way. I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications.
Is Vera safe?
Everything we do is engineered to be safe, and we are taking all necessary precautions. We are looking at what is needed in terms of infrastructure, on the vehicles and in a control tower. The vehicles have a lower operating speed, and they are equipped with a number of sensors, radars and cameras. By starting with slower speed in a clearly defined area and then gradually increase speed and building infrastructure, we are confident that we are taking a safe path towards automation.
What is the next step for Vera?
To begin with, we will operate over short distances in repetitive flows. As we gain more experience, we can look into expanding into other applications. However, Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere. It is a solution that we will adapt and tailor from user to user, depending on their unique needs.