For several decades now, Torbjörn Holmström has been helping Volvo vault the technical and logistical barriers to fulfill the dream of fully autonomous long-haul trucks.
But the big hurdle that worries the Volvo executive now is the one over which he has the least control: how the technology will be regulated. His mission is to encourage governments around the world to tackle the thorny legal and ethical questions surrounding autonomous vehicles so they can be legalized to operate on the open road.
He understands it won’t be easy.
“We need to have the technology, but the legislation must be there as well,” Holmström told Trucks.com at the recent Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal. “We want to get society and the legislators to start to think about what we need to make this happen. Because there is so much productivity gains for business and society that we could capture if we could get this up and running.”
Since 1979, he’s been one of the key figures overseeing the development of Volvo’s autonomous trucks. This past summer, he stepped down from his role as Volvo Group’s chief technology officer, and is now senior advisor to the company’s Research & Technology Group. And in that job he’s still working closely with Volvo’s autonomous truck program.
Indeed, Holmström has recently become a minor celebrity in the autonomous trucking world thanks to his part in a recent trial of a Volvo autonomous truck.
In early September, Volvo conducted its first live demonstration of a Volvo FMX. The fully autonomous truck that uses sensors to guide it also has an onboard transport system to gather data and optimize its route for factors like fuel consumption. The company turned it loose deep underground in a mine in northern Sweden.
A film of the event shows the truck navigating the labyrinth of the mine in dark, wet, near-freezing conditions. The climax comes when Holmström steps into the path of the truck to see if it will spot him and stop. It does.
Holmström admitted he was just a bit nervous at the time.
“Even though we had tested it before, you never know about technology on that level,” he said. “I was ready to jump aside if something really bad happened. But when you’re the chief of the engineering team, sometimes you have to stand up for that and believe in your team.”
While dramatic, he emphasized that such demonstrations were not simply about generating hype or buzz around the technology. Rather, Holmström said that Volvo is making a conscious effort to show autonomous trucks in action to slowly get the general public comfortable with the idea as well as to educate government officials about both the limits and potential of the technology.
Earlier this year, Volvo was one of several European truck manufacturers that took part in The European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016, which was organized by the Dutch government. Trucks left a handful of European cities and over several weeks drove in platoons to the Netherlands to demonstrate the progress that has been made in this more limited form of autonomous trucking.
Holmström said that technologies such as platooning are not currently permitted across Europe. The technology underlying such advances has been evolving for decades as companies like Volvo added more sensors and software to trucks to automate different functions. There are still tremendous technological issues to solve before fully autonomous trucks become the norm, he said.
But the technology has clearly crossed a threshold, and now there are enough limited capabilities, such as platooning, that are ready to go live. In that respect, he argues it’s time for governments to create the regulatory framework for their operation. The issues involved include questions of liability, what criteria a truck must meet to operate on open roads, and what cybersecurity and data protections should be implemented.
Trucking companies are already clamoring for the autonomous trucks, hoping they will cut costs not only on fuel, but on driver training and recruitment, insurance and repairs. Holmström said it’s incumbent on truck manufacturers and operators to make clear the benefits and challenges to regulators.
“If you start with just the platooning, you can save a lot of fuel consumption,” he said. “That’s a financial benefit and an economic benefit, but also an environmental benefit. …We know what type of technology we need to use. What needs to happen now is the legislation has to be there to allow that. Today, it’s not allowed.”
In the meantime, he said Volvo will continue to proceed cautiously. The worst thing trucking companies could do is to push too fast and spook the general population.
Holmström downplayed the idea that fully autonomous trucks are just around the corner. He said such a vision probably won’t be realized until the end of the next decade. The software in the trucks still needs to be more powerful in terms of gathering data, analyzing it and making decisions. But beyond the trucks, there are infrastructure issues that need to be addressed, such as the design of roads and exit ramps, and the robustness of wireless networks.
For now, he expects there will still be a human being in the cab, even if that role starts to shift slowly in the coming years.
“If you think we will not have truck drivers in the future, well, that is very, very far away,” he said. “It’s important that we take cautious steps. Society and the greater population must feel very safe about it. We