Volvo Trucks Planning Chief Talks Tesla, Autonomous Vehicles and Platooning

September 28, 2017 by Clarissa Hawes

One of the themes of the just-concluded North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta is that trucking will change as much over the next 10 years as it has in the last 100. New entrants such as electric car company Tesla Inc. and the advent of electric trucks, hydrogen trucks and self-driving trucks all are creating disruption. sat down with Keith Brandis, director of product planning at Volvo Trucks North America, to find out what he thinks of the rapid change going on within the industry.

Here’s an edited version of the conversation:

Do you think Tesla will disrupt trucking?

We are watching with interest what Tesla has promised and what they can deliver. I would say that as a commercial vehicle manufacturer, it’s not easy to break into this business. We know how much our dealers are invested to serve customers, how much it takes in terms of capital to put together heavy-duty manufacturing products and components alike. We welcome technology disruptions, but we are also working on our own products as well.

In the Volvo Group we have medium-duty trucks global componentry that we developed for those electric applications, mainly city, low-speed short-range applications. We are getting valuable data and real experience about what it costs to own, operate and maintain those vehicles. Some of that is changing the way we service those trucks.

Diesel is still the main path for us in our research-and-development efforts, and we will continue to support that for the foreseeable future because we haven’t found another fuel that is as energy-efficient.

We know there’s still advances to come. We are still looking at improving the technology even further.

Some analysts say Tesla and other electric truck brands can capture 10 percent or more of the market over the next five years, what do you think?

In the class 8 market, it’s going to be more of a low penetration to begin with and maybe it makes more sense in light- and medium-duty trucks. I think with those duty cycles the cost of the technology could be made affordable.

The cost of the batteries will come down over time, but this will have to be a significant volume to drive down the cost because today it’s quite expensive.

Many expect platooning to be the first use of autonomous driving systems outside of safety features. What’s your view?

We are excited about [platooning] for a couple of reasons. We have tested and have seen the aerodynamic improvements from running closely a couple of platooning trucks. It can be 10 percent or more fuel economy benefit for the second and third vehicles.

We also see using advanced safety systems as more of a control mechanism for the second and third trucks. So again, we face certain challenges. One, it’s not legal to test in all states — we have to get special permission. We also need certain conditions like good weather and dedicated lanes available to us. So, lots of other things have to be addressed before we see any commercial vehicle activities.

We are also advocating for a federal standard. There are a couple bills in Congress that would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the authority to both set guidelines as well as allow testing.

There’s no regulation on the books that allows us to do this, so we are working with the authorities and we know it has to be proven for many, many miles before we are willing to trust it.  We think there’s a strong argument for platooning, but we will have to see how everything plays out in Congress.

What are the benefits of the growing autonomous technology suite?

We can make drivers safer, and that is everybody’s goal. We can illuminate many blind spots around the truck. We can help the driver see visually and with radar sensors that may alert them to things they may not be able to see.

We can automate some of the mundane tasks that they have that allow them to be more alert when needed

I think one of the toughest environments for us to automate is of course city driving and congested areas. There are so many variables. There are pedestrians, people on bikes, you have cars that are double-parked. How do you program for all of those conditions? We see that as very difficult, and that is why we still need a professional driver behind the wheel.

So, in cities and in congested areas, you need human decision makers in those conditions, and I don’t think we replace those with any technology.

We do think we can help the driver be more productive and safer. If you have ever driven in fog or low-visibility conditions. Volvo has safety technology that alerts the driver that there is a car that’s stopped on the road because it will pick it up on the radar and camera sensors and give you a heads-up alert on the display and begin braking the vehicle to a stop.

Various regions and countries are talking about banning diesel as a fuel for light vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles. What does this mean for diesel?

There are reasons why certain cities like London, Paris and others are talking about banning diesel.

In Europe, diesel cars are the majority of the vehicles. They are doing it from an environmental standpoint. But a problem may be how are they going to get deliveries into the cities if they don’t allow diesel trucks.

It’s not just a simple solution to ban all diesel trucks in these key cities, but we are working with the authorities and trying to promote our latest trucks, which have significantly lower emissions in many places in the world. In California, they have some of the oldest trucks in their fleets. And that’s the problem — how do they update their fleet and give incentives for customers to trade them in on much cleaner vehicles that are up to 90 percent cleaner.

Do you see a day when diesel will be banned from significant markets globally?

It could happen. We are playing our role as an advocate, as well as the rest of the industry, to make sure there is an informed decision. We want to have informed regulators and understand our contribution to the transportation business, and we think there is a lot of scientific data about how clean trucks are today and investments that we’ve made in the latest technologies and continue to make in the coming years.

I talked about connectivity, and one of the things we would like to see in some of these areas like the ports is an electric-only mode for trucks, but then you need diesel, so it could be a combination of things. We see that as part of our continued research and advocacy efforts.

Read next: Fuel-Saving, Emissions-Slashing Truck Platooning Technology Advances

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