Features & Interviews Truck

Tomorrow’s truck – when driver becomes passenger

05 August 2014 #Features & Interviews #Truck

Volvo Whitworth BrosManufacturers have been keen to ensure that – where possible – the systems enjoyed by the masses in their passenger cars, can also be of benefit to truck operators.

Numerous improvements with telemetry and diagnostics have predominantly made fleets more efficient, while new engine legislation has led to a clean-up of cities and the broader UK road network. At the same time, safety advances have been seen in a number of cars, but only few of these (like advanced cruise control, lane keeping/blind spot assistance and the latest mirrors) have made it onto trucks.

So where next for HGVs? The introduction of Euro-6 has happened. Now truck manufacturers are looking further into the future, and exploring the technology that will shape vehicles – and logistics – for future generations of transport companies and hauliers.

One of the approaches being explored is that of autonomous driving, initially demonstrated by car manufacturers over the years, but now being investigated for other vehicles. The news comes at a time when the UK government has announced that a trial of driverless cars will be allowed on public roads from January next year, and operators of mining trucks in the US are reportedly taking well to automation.

With HGV operators, it is relatively early days for driverless operation. Volvo was only vehicle partner in the EU’s SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) platoon project, which concluded in 2012 – a programme that was typically used for passenger car investigations, but led by a truck. While the project was deemed a success, there has been little news since of any production vehicles resulting from the trucks used in the study. But as the Swedes continue to enhance their reputation for safety inside and outside the vehicle, we are sure to see more developments in Volvo Trucks soon.

Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, has also been working on next-generation technologies as it looks forward to tomorrow’s trucks with its Future Truck 2025. Already a pioneer in many safety technologies in car, van and commercial vehicle products, the German manufacturer has set out its stall by demonstrating what is possible with a driverless approach to trucks. It believes autonomous driving will be very much reality 11 years hence, and has demonstrated why, and how, with its Highway Pilot approach.

The German manufacturer claims that in just over a decade, there will no longer be drivers, but “transport managers in an attractive mobile workplace offering scope for new professional skills”. The company goes on to highlight the increased efficiency, road safety and benefits to the environments, but the real concern is how best to reach that point of maturity. The answer, says Mercedes-Benz is though connectivity.

Highway Pilot is a combination of radar sensors at the front and sides of the truck, a camera mounted behind the windscreen, 3D maps and the deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies. Out goes the conventional instrument cluster, and in comes a new-generation display that shows fuel and AdBlue levels and engine speed on the left, and vehicle speed and ‘social data’ on the right.

Activate Highway Pilot and this technology moves from the dashboard to the screen of a tablet computer, mounted in the centre console. This tablet, or, more accurately, the system software being run on it, is Highway Pilot’s USP, the content of which is still a closely guarded secret.

The world’s media was given the first glimpse into future technology last month when Mercedes-Benz demonstrated the system on a stretch of the A14 in Germany. Operating at 80km/h autonomously, within normal traffic conditions, it was able to study road conditions, assess the best routes to take, and be aware of other road users. The truck is set for a more formal, and wider-reaching, unveiling at September’s IAA in Hanover.

The system incorporates many other layers of technology to ensure the experience of ‘driving’ the truck is as close as it can be to being behind the wheel of a normal vehicle. There is a system that corrects the truck’s course in the event of high cross-winds, and the cruise control is set to keep at least 60m behind the vehicle in front when travelling at 85km/h.

Putting the vehicle in the hands of technology, the driver can use the V2I capabilities on the onboard and fully connected tablet to assess the route ahead, and work out times that could be saved for a more efficient delivery route, or plan to change to a more convenient rest stop.

Addtionally, given they are not driving, drivers have the ability to inform colleagues behind them about potential accidents or breakdowns on the road that could affect their journey. In the case of a broken-down vehicle on the hard shoulder, Highway Pilot will also move to the right, to allow more space, further demonstrating the safety benefits of the system.

Highway Pilot also demonstrates more V2I benefits when used for refrigerated transport. An app on the tablet can be used to activate a trailer’s refrigeration unit, and alter the temperature, so it is just the right temperature when it is picked up. Again, more efficiency ensuring the vehicle isn’t working so hard and using fuel when it doesn’t need to.

If Mercedes-Benz’ vision of the future becomes reality, then it’s great news for drivers? Almost, but the manufacturer is at pains to point out that, “The driver of the autonomous truck can always override the technology by steering, braking or accelerating as required.”

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