Volvo is testing a self-driving work truck nearly a mile below the surface in an ore mine in Sweden.
Such a setting allows the truck manufacturer to test the vehicle under real-world working conditions, but in a secure space. The mine program will help Volvo refine autonomous truck systems for future applications.
The tests of the autonomous version of Volvo’s FMX truck will look at how it increases productivity and safety in the mine. It also will demonstrate that self-driving vehicles can eventually be used on construction sites and open roads, Torbjörn Holmström, senior research advisor for AB Volvo, said at the Collision Conference in New Orleans, La.
Volvo launched its project in September 2016 with a viral video where Holmström stood in front of the oncoming truck to prove his confidence in the system.
“I [dared] to test the vehicle and stand in front of it so that it understands someone is in front and will stop at the right time,” Holmström said. “It was meant to do it from the very beginning.”
Testing in the mine has offered Volvo the ability to put a prototype through “real-world work environments” while keeping it in a confined place, Holmström said.
The truck continually shuttles ore between the loading area and the crusher by traveling a 7-kilometer route through narrow mine tunnels, he said.
“It’s easy to do tests when you’re running around corers but this is a real operation,” Holmström said.
The self-driving truck can operate around the clock in environments that would otherwise endanger humans. Ventilation is typically one of the most cost-intensive aspects of mining, and after each blast, drivers must wait for tunnels to be completely ventilated before they can proceed.
Precise route planning, consistent speed and the ability to travel in any condition can greatly increase efficiency, Holmström said.
The truck’s onboard transit system also gathers data and can optimize its path and fuel efficiency along the way, he said. “You can use the mine in a safer and more profitable way [by running] the vehicles almost 24/7. It would be a much more productive system and you could use the infrastructure and capital much better.”
The autonomous truck is a specially-equipped Volvo FMX outfitted with autonomous-enabling technologies including lidar, radar, sensors and cameras. The system was originally used to monitor the mine’s geometry and generate a route map. During each pass, sensors continually monitor the area around the truck to look for obstacles and changes to update the digital map. Information received can adjust speed, gear changes and steering.
“We are using all the technologies that are available right now. It’s almost a standard truck just with added software and sensors. That truck is already in production today and has been very well tested for many years,” Holmström said.
Holmström has been with Volvo since 1979 and is one of the key figures in the company’s autonomous trucks program. He said this is only the “latest step” in the evolution of autonomy that date back to automatic transmission development in the ’70s.
“In the video release last year that the goal was to gain knowledge and experience with self driving trucks and to build a ‘technology platform more than a specific functional solution,’” said Johan Tofeldt, automation group project leader.
Volvo is also working on a venture with Swedish waste management company Renova to test how autonomous garbage trucks could streamline trash collection more and reduce the risk of human injury.
More research, testing and development will be required before self-driving garbage trucks become a reality, the company said. More immediate applications in controlled environments with regular repetitive drive, such as the mine, can prove as a testing ground for the future.