When traffic and product safety director Carl Johan Almqvist speaks, you listen. Within Volvo Trucks he is seen as a figurehead for all things safety-related, talking to thousands of people a year about the company’s enduring legacy and its continuous pursuit of reducing the number of truck-related accidents to zero.
On stage, he’s a wiry, eloquent presence not unlike the Silicon Valley new tech evangelists that spread out onto YouTube every time there’s a new phone to sell. But as T&FME talks to him after his latest whistle-stop presentation of how Volvo is trying to save lives at its experience centre in Gothenburg, it becomes quickly apparent that he isn’t in it to merely shift product.
Almqvist absolutely wants to save lives and to do that he realises that Volvo Trucks has to focus on the most important on-board system of all, the truck’s flawed human driver, in its attempt to make technology features like its Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS), Collision Warning with Emergency Brake, and even the ubiquitous (and Volvo invented) seat-belt 100% fool-proof.
“When the system works really well, we stop looking in the mirror. Because the system is helping us. And, then, when the system doesn’t work we might kill somebody,” he starts. “I think we all have cars where you have a backup alarm now; when you start reversing it says’ beep, beep, beep’. You think we’re getting less accidents with that?
“Well, the insurance companies are telling us that we’re getting more accidents, because people are not looking anymore. We are lazy. And this is a little of the scary part: if we create something that’s 80% OK, is it okay that 20% of the time you run over something? Of course it’s not. And that’s why sometimes it takes a lot of time to develop something before we feel that we’re getting close to 100%. But we need to be there (at 100%). Otherwise, it’s not helping. So that’s a major challenge.”
Since its introduction, VDS’ better directional stability, easier manoeuvring and higher comfort has reduced the risk of road accidents and strain-related injuries but, he argues, the new functions are also helping make the traffic environment even safer. Volvo Trucks recently added an array of enhancements and features to its driver support system and now integrates VDS with its other comfort and safety-enhancing systems, such as: Volvo Dynamic Steering with Stability Assist and Volvo Dynamic Steering with Lane Keeping Assist.
Almqvist says Volvo Trucks is intent on taking existing technology systems to revolutionise heavy trucks safety. It is building on the electric motor and hydraulic steering gear engineering behind VDS and exploring how it can better use data on the traffic environment from sensors and other connected vehicles to ensure that the truck can react to dangers on the road, often before the driver is aware of them. Despite the truck industry’s increasing reliance on cutting edge technology, he says his appreciation of how the human mind can adapt and learn continues to grow.
“This work actually gets trickier, the more you understand and the more you realise how difficult it is to understand what’s going on. And that’s where you actually see how fantastic the human being is,” he remarks before drawing up his hands to gesture. “Just think of different situations. When you drive, you see when something happens and you decide I will just pass a car like that. It’s easy, I happen to go over the white line a little bit, but I just passed safely.
“Think of programming that… It’s okay to cross that white line just because of this situation… that might never ever happen again. You have understood from experience, that you can see it is safe, ‘I’ll just do the little tweak of the steering wheel’. It is going to take a long time to outperform with sensors and computers and calculations and predictions a human being that is alert.”
Both the automotive and media have obsessed on the idea of our highways being populated by millions of autonomous vehicles. Almqvist’s own work on using data to control heavy trucks has given him an insight into how difficult it is to replicate how the human being is able to process traffic information and anticipate events occurring on the road ahead.
“Where do you look when you’re driving?” He asks. “Do you look at the car exactly in front of you? Or do you look five, ten cars ahead? What’s the most important? Well for a heavy vehicle, you want to look far ahead because you want to see when you can start slowing down or gain speed. And if you look at the sensors, like the radar, can it look at the tenth car down the road?
“It can look at the car in front of you but you don’t really care about that one. And it has to make all of its decisions according to what that one car is doing.
“Also understand how quickly it has to understand what is happening. We are able to calculate because we are seeing way down the road… ‘ah, all of their brake lights are coming on and something is going to happen’. (Replicating that process) is a challenge.”
While T&FME was impressed when using VDS on the track, particularly being able to shift through driving modes and personal settings that determine how the truck behaves (the system allows drivers to choose between pre-programmed settings or customise their steering preference using four different variables – Straight, Cornering, Damping and Return – to get the perfectly tuned steering response), it still requires a momentary glance away from what is happening on the road. The magazine asks Almqvist how designing for the limitations of the human driver holds back the technology.
“The most fantastic systems are the ones that are just laying in the background and when you mess up as a human being they step in and they support you. Which is what the electronics stability control does, for instance. It’s always working in the background.
“If I’m a good driver nothing’s going to happen. If I happen to do something, or are going to curve a little too fast, it says ‘hey watch out I’m going to slow you down a little because as this time you are a little fast. Those are the best systems. “
He continues: “They make you a better driver because they teach you that the next time you come to that same curve or exit or whatever, you remember. Because what we’re good at as human beings is remembering to need to slow down (when you go through that situation again).”
Is there a danger that we will become less of a driver because we’re being asked to do less?
“That is true. And I’d say that’s definitely one of the challenges if we’re looking at with autonomous vehicles.”
The mention of autonomous vehicles sparks a debate of the direction the technology is taking. Volvo Trucks has set out a strategy of testing in controlled environments and has a few trials currently underway, such as the autonomous FMX’ trucks deployed Boiden Mine in northern Sweden or the recently revealed Vera (which has been designed to work in port and logistics hubs).
“We’re doing it in confined areas because we know who is in a mine or maybe in a port, or something like that; we know who the players are and who should be there. A car isn’t going to come from some funny place or whatever.”
He adds that programming systems for open urban areas is extremely arduous as current traffic rules can vary wildly.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are different rules and regulations and ways of driving even in the same country. In one city they do it in one way because that’s how they normally interact in that city and in another city in the same country they can interact in a completely different way. And we have to program all of that.”
The development of safety systems is at a crossroads where two very differing technologies, which have taken very different historical paths, are now converging.
On the one side, you have the engineering that has led to the hydraulics and control systems of safety technology like VDS and, on the other, you have the digital and (increasingly cloud-based) data-driven autonomous systems whose shorter roots stem back to the technology houses that emerged at end of the last century. Are round pegs trying to be forced into square holes? T&FME asks.
“Exactly right, but we keep safety at the base. We can’t get away from safety because it is a self-driving truck. We accept that. Our acceptance level for a self-driving vehicle is much, much lower, for instance.”
To illustrate the point, he cites the fatal accident in Arizona that drew huge international attention when an Uber car struck a cyclist in March 2018. During the court case, the local police alleged the vehicle’s driver was watching The Voice on Hulu at the time of the accident.
“There was a big drama about that because it was a self-driving vehicle. I think it’s a little sad, but it shows exactly what will happen when you are a co-pilot (because that’s what you are when you’re just sitting there to control). This is the worst thing we human beings can do because we get bored and lose attention almost immediately. If the thing’s been working great for three months, of course, he’s sitting there thinking why would I even occasionally look up?”
As our conversation draws to a close, Almqvist is asked about how the very human trait of taking on the competition is helping Volvo Trucks to strive for better as it continues to build on its own legacy in safety.
“Competition is fantastic. If we didn’t have competition, I don’t think we would be pushing as hard as we all are.”