Autonomous, heavy-duty articulation
It might not always be the case, but when it comes to new-vehicle technologies, they tend to appear on passenger car applications before going up the food chain to heavy commercial vehicles. This trend has been evident with autonomous vehicles because, while everywhere you turn a manufacturer or startup is presenting a take on the driverless future, the heavy truck market has stayed relatively quiet. Sure, there’s been platooning trials and talk of V2V and V2I connectivity, but going one step further and removing the driver from the equation? That’s been unheard of, until very recently.
Volvo Trucks was the first to break ranks with a truck that looks nothing like a truck. Vera is the company’s vision of the future—a truck without a cab that can be controlled remotely and makes the driver redundant in some applications. Designed for regular and repetitive tasks over short distances, Vera combines autonomy, connectivity, and electrification in one concept vehicle in a radical new design of tractor unit. Volvo says Vera is still very much in development, as it seeks the perfect mix of vehicles for the future to cope with the demands and requirements of the transport industry.
An in-house development by a Volvo Trucks team that included Sasko Cuklev, Director, Autonomous Solutions, Vera took three years to come to fruition, as the project team started imagining beyond the next generation of heavy-duty trucks and how they would—or could—be used.
“We wanted to think about what the future would look like and then move forward in small steps instead of trying to build a ladder to the moon, but never reach the moon,” explained Cukley. “It is very easy to focus on the truck and its appearance, but we are really talking about the transport solution, where the truck is one part, connectivity is another, and the control tower is another.”
The control tower will, according to Volvo, monitor Vera’s direction, dispatching, loads, logistics and time between different points.
“We would like to connect that system to our own transport network, but that is work in progress,” said Cukley, adding that it is one of the elements of the concept that is still yet to be fully developed. “The overall aim is to have V2V communication. Vera should have the logic to take its own decision when driving, but the control system can also take over and make those decisions instead. We envisage that some sort of remote steering will be used, in case of any problems or emergencies. We used to say that it is impossible to drive or steer a vehicle like Vera, because there is no cab. Now we don’t have a cab, we need to have an alternative way of maintaining some element of control, which is the remote steering.”
Cukley admitted there were a lot of challenges with getting Vera to this stage, but Volvo is “extremely satisfied with what we have.” In terms of maintenance, he says that because much of the truck has come from existing products—Vera is essentially an FH without a cab, powered by the driveline of Volvo’s FL FE electric truck—it should be fairly straightforward.
Despite what some people might think, the reaction from drivers hasn’t been as bad as some people might’ve predicted.
“I get the negative reaction from some drivers, but there has also been a lot of positivity,” said Cukley. “A lot of it is down to how we present the product and the solutions—we see this more as a complement to today’s transport systems. In order to meet the big increase of transport in the future, solutions such as Vera will play a big role. It won’t replace anything, because it is designed to work alongside existing products and solutions.
Elsewhere in the heavy-duty truck segment in Europe, Ford Motor Co. has made a reappearance, picking up the title of International Truck of the Year in the process. The triumphant truck was the F-Max and, while it boasts conventional powertrain and safety systems, it was unveiled alongside F-Vision, Ford’s look to the future.
This battery-powered concept vehicle is Ford’s first venture into autonomous and connected trucks, and was also the creation of a team of 25 engineers at Ford Otosan in Turkey, with no real involvement from the Blue Oval’s U.S. HQ. F-Vision is equipped with the technologies to meet Level 4 of SAE’s automated driving systems standard, but staff on the stand were quick to say that any kind of production-level version of the truck is still a little way down the line.
“Having designed the F-Max for the current market, we also wanted to look at the future of commercial vehicles, hence the creation of the F-Vision,” said Levant Tuna, designer of the autonomous concept. “We are aware that vehicles are evolving, and within the product development team that we have in Turkey, we had already been working on electrification of lightweight vehicles and autonomous vehicles and wanted to adapt those ideas to the heavy truck sector. F-Vision is designed for the near- to mid-term future, depending on how quickly the technologies develop.”
Like Volvo, Ford is keen to maintain some element of control over the vehicle so, while F-Vision will be fully autonomous on the highway, in the city, humans will take over. It will, however, have an active fifth-wheel as part of its autonomous attributes.
“When the vehicle is moving in a straight line, the trailer will move closer to the cab so there are no air gaps, therefore improving the aerodynamics,” explained Tuna. “When there is a bend in the road ahead, it separates in order to make the turn and then recloses the gap when back on the straight.
“We are also working on autonomous trailer parking where the fifth wheel moves via cameras mounted on the frame to help identify the location of the trailer and fifth wheel, allowing them to engage autonomously,” he added.
“These technologies will never replace humans, but they will be a good companion,” said Tuna. “The product will be an extension of the driver’s body—like an arm or a hand on the wheel; something that will do whatever you want it to do and make the driver’s life easier.”