Autonomous trucks like you’ve never seen them before.
While the Europeans and the North Americans continue their research and development into autonomous trucking, most of the advanced publicity has centred on drivers sitting in the cabs reading a newspaper or a book while some form of higher intelligence steers from the heavens, emulating a form of divine intervention as the truck rolls down the highway.
With Scania full of excitement over the successful launch of its New Generation Trucking range, the Swedes have started to show their hand at the game of “look Mum, no hands”, demonstrating an autonomously-controlled dump truck working off the road in a mining application at the recent TRATON Group innovation day held in Sodertajle, Sweden.
Note the use of the word autonomous, rather than driverless, as none of these vehicles are actually driverless. Someone, or something is still driving them. Although their physical presence may not be actually in the vehicle, remote intervention still ensures that the vehicle doesn’t at any stage just head off to do its own thing. At least, that’s the intention (and hope), for the exercise.
The latest truck that does its own thing (with a little help from its friends), is the Scania AXL. For starters its appearance is totally different, as this truck doesn’t have anywhere for a driver or passenger to sit. It’s a fully-autonomous concept truck without a cab.
In what is another milestone in the development of heavy self-driving vehicles, a group of Scania experts in different fields have teamed up and developed a concept truck, which, even without the cab, has the company’s modular system at the heart of the design.
As different industries look to streamline transport assignments and make them more sustainable, self-driving vehicles are increasingly being considered. Mines and large closed-construction sites are examples of environments that are favourable for self-driving pilots, since they are well-controlled locations.
“With the Scania AXL concept truck, we are taking a significant step towards the smart transport systems of the future, where self-driving vehicles will play a natural part,” says Scania’s President and CEO Henrik Henriksson. “We continue to build and pilot concepts to demonstrate what we can do with the technology that is available today.”
For autonomous vehicles, software is in many ways more important than hardware. Scania AXL is steered and monitored by an intelligent control environment. In mines, for example, the autonomous operations are facilitated by a logistics system that tells the vehicle how it should perform.
Scania’s head of Research and Development, Claes Erixon, said: “We already have self-driving trucks in customer operations. However so far, they have been with room for a safety driver who can intervene if necessary. Scania AXL does not have a cab and that changes the game significantly.
“The development in self-driving vehicles has made great strides in the past years. We still don’t have all the answers, but through concept vehicles like Scania AXL we break new ground and continue to learn at great speed.”
The combustion engine that powers the concept vehicle is an example of how traditional and new technology is mixed, as the AXL is powered by renewable biofuel.
The robust and powerful features and design behind Scania AXL match the tougher environments in mines and large construction sites. A new intelligent front module replaces the traditional cab, but even without a cab the concept is easily recognisable as a Scania.
With cameras, radar and Lidar sensors, Scania’s engineers have taken powerful steps towards fully autonomous vehicles. The challenge has been to replace the human eye and the ability of the human brain to process decisions based on what the eye sees.
Autonomous vehicles have often relied on data from cameras and radar. Radar sensors are reliable, but the resolution is insufficient to identify the likes of pedestrians and small objects at a distance. The camera offers a sufficient level of detail and a good overview in two dimensions but requires massive software to convert 2D images of the surrounding environment to 3D. Generally, for autonomous vehicles, software is more important than hardware.
For safe autonomous driving, an additional sensor is therefore needed. It’s called Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging.
“We need there to be overlap between the sensors, so that one can be a backup to take over from the other if needs be,” says Fredrich Claezon, System Architect for Autonomous Vehicles.
“What happens if the camera and radar suggest conflicting information? Which of these sensors should we trust? With Lidar, we can obtain a better basis for decisions.”
As Scania’s first fully autonomous self-driving concept truck, the AXL is equipped with cameras, radar, Lidar and GPS receivers. The system is designed for a level that meets the operational needs of mines.
“The system isn’t yet street smart but it’s certainly smart enough for being used in mines,” says Development Engineer Magnus Granström, Autonomous Systems Development.
“The human eye is not easily replaced but a relatively good overview of surroundings can be obtained through sensors. In this case, we see what we need to see.”
“Driving in a mine is fairly simple and predictable. If you’re driving in a more dynamic and less predictable environment, more work is needed.”
It’s been difficult to decide just how complex the system should be. This involves balancing an opportunity to develop a more general system for many applications with ensuring there is a robust and reliable system for the mining industry.
“Scania AXL would most probably not be fit for city driving, but considering the envisioned environment and planned assignments, it’s sufficiently smart,” says Mr Granström.
As a concept that operates on closed haul roads and without the opportunity to flatten mining personnel or equipment, there’s obviously merit in the project and the current results. Time will tell whether the millions of research and development dollars assigned to autonomous trucks produce real savings.