Volvo Trucks North America has established a department within the company it is calling Volvo Trucks 2.0 that is charged with looking at how innovation in autonomous technology, electric powertrains and connectivity will develop within the trucking industry.
The unit, headed by Per Carlsson, the former acting president of the Swedish company’s North American arm, has a separate research and development budget so that it can focus solely on innovation, Peter Voorhoeve, the president of Volvo Trucks North America, told Trucks.com
“This is so new, so different and so exciting that we actually need a group of people that full time works on this,” Voorhoeve said.
The group also is tasked with reviewing the work of third-party technology companies and deciding which businesses Volvo Trucks should partner with.
Keyed to the future
Voorhoeve said Volvo Trucks 2.0 is not as interested in figuring out how to design the next tractor model but rather is looking at the future of trucking, freight and logistics.
“This is trucking in the next 50 years,” Voorhoeve said. “It’s super exciting.”
Volvo Trucks already has multiple technology initiatives.
With its European parent company, Volvo has developed electric trucks and plans to start tests at Southern California’s sprawling port complex next year. It also has run platooning experiments, in which digitally tethered trucks follow closely together to reduce drag and increase fuel economy, in both California and along the Eastern Seaboard.
In Europe the truck maker has partnered with a Norwegian mine operator that is using six autonomous Volvo FH trucks that are driving themselves over a 3.1-mile track to transport limestone to a crusher.
“Trucking today won’t be what trucking tomorrow will be,” Voorhoeve said. “The only thing that we can tell is that things will change.”
The partnership with mine operator Brønnøy Kalk AS in Norway is an example.
“Volvo gets paid by the ton for transported material. We’ve never done that before,” Voorhoeve said.
As autonomous and connected trucks become more common, Voorhoeve said he believes the trucking industry will figure out ways to make money that are alternatives to building and selling vehicles.
“The car industry is figuring this out now and some [solutions] are more creative than others. Clearly, we will see that in our industry as well,” he said.
Also in Europe, the company is developing Vera, an autonomous truck that would operate in restricted areas such as ports or warehouse districts to carry big loads along fixed routes. Vera is an electric truck tractor without a cab that is self-driving.
“Connectivity is key to all of this,” Voorhoeve said.
A production version of the Vera will have a place in the logistics chain somewhere, he said.
Volvo’s platooning tests – like one with FedEx in North Carolina in the summer of 2018 – show that efficiency gains are real and the technology can work, Voorhoeve said
But hurdles exist. Volvo, for example, has yet to talk to other truck manufacturers about setting industry standards that would allow platooning trucks of different brands to communicate with one another. This is vital for platooning to work, since the American Trucking Associations says that 91 percent of motor carriers operate six or fewer trucks, and not all of them travel to the same destination at the same time.
Another challenge will be finding social and legislative acceptance for trucks driving close together, especially with autonomous technology involved, he said. But Voorhoeve believes that the U.S. is the likely location for the commercialization of the technology.
“It’s easier to do it here than in Europe,” he said. “Yes, it is 50 different states, but it is still one country and Europe is not.”
The Volvo Vera self-driving tractor concept was unveiled in September and was designed to move trailers around in restricted areas like ports, freeing workers for other duties. The concept looks nothing like a traditional cab since there is no room for a driver or even a steering wheel.