Visions of trucking’s future are as nuanced as those who dare to picture it. The possibilities of today’s truck equipment technology serve as a sort of trucking Rorschach test—where one person looks at automated trucks and imagines a world without professional drivers, and others look at that same technology and can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be a driver there to monitor the system. But that’s a topic for another column. For the time being, let’s consider the topic of automation and safety.
Talk to Volvo Trucks North America about what it sees through the lens of automated systems, and Volvo will tell you about the possibility of a “zero accident” world.
“Each year, more than 1.2 million people per year are killed on roads around the world, and so we must change the world,” said Carl Johan Almqvist, traffic and product safety director for Volvo Trucks. “Oftentimes it’s not until a traffic accident or fatality personally affects our lives that we take note of the problem. We know that about 90% of all accidents are a result of human factors, so real progress requires a change in mindset so we don’t tolerate accidents and their contributing behaviors.”
For Volvo’s part, the OEM continues to support advanced safety technology in order to mitigate or prevent accidents. On its new VNL and VNR series tractors, Volvo made Volvo Active Driver Assist, which includes Bendix Wingman Fusion, standard. As the truck manufacturer invests in advanced driver assist systems and automated features, safety is synonymous with autonomous.
“It’s impossible to discuss just automation or safety—because automation is safety,” said Lars Stenqvist, Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Group’s chief technology officer and executive vice president, Volvo Group Trucks Technology. “We could never introduce a system inside the realm of automation that isn’t safe. Automation is a tool to increase truck safety. When the majority of accidents are caused by human beings, that’s the issue we need to solve with automated features, so that trucks and the people driving them are safer than when we were driving without those features.”
Stenqvist’s vision of trucking’s future with increased levels of autonomy, including both driver and potentially driverless trucks, begins in specific “semi-confined” applications such as mining and port terminal applications, and then matures into applications that are closer to the public.
“I believe that you can move toward automated highway applications, but I think that in those first years, you will see one dedicated lane on the highway for those trucks,” Stenqvist said. “Perhaps it will be physically separated from the rest of the traffic on that highway, for example, as a ‘semi-confined’ area. It’ll be a long time before we see fully autonomous, heavy-duty commercial vehicles in downtown cities, like Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles or New York City. That’s definitely not where it will start. Volvo isn’t aiming for that now because the traffic situation there is so extremely unpredictable.”
Much of that unpredictability isn’t due to the truck and its driver. According to Drew Schimelpfenig of Omnitracs Safety Center of Excellence, more than 80% of accidents involving trucks are not caused by trucks—they were caused by the other vehicle. As automated safety features such as advanced collision mitigation and roll stability systems continue to move the conversation on increasing safety, it grows into a larger discussion about the responsibility shared by all of us who travel our streets and highways.
In terms of truck equipment, the conversation is shifting from what we can do to what we should do. This is just the beginning in a series of columns where I’ll delve into the various depictions of trucking’s future as seen by the industry’s equipment leaders. Remember the earlier question of the driver’s role in all of this? I’ll tackle that next month.