As driverless trucking startups test autonomous trucks on southwest U.S. freeways, one major supplier thinks freight terminals make a better proving ground.
Robotic trucks have fewer obstacles and random traffic to contend with in closed environments like freight terminals. They can be digitally mapped. Also, depot managers can limit cross traffic.
Truck companies, including Volvo, are testing autonomous trucks in closed environments such as mines and distribution centers.
“We have some technology for an autonomous freight yard or an autonomous port that makes us a player in the marketplace,” said Kent Jones, ZF Friedrichshafen vice president of North American sales.
ZF’s approach to automation is evolutionary.
ZF Friedrichstrafen’s historic strength is transmissions. But it is adding the building blocks needed for autonomous driving. The company’s purchase of TRW Automotive in 2015 brought expertise in steering systems. The pending addition of Wabco Holdings Inc. would add braking systems know-how.
“We started with adaptive cruise control,” said Ananda Pandy, a ZF technical specialist.
Collision warning and lane-keeping came later. All built confidence in the system, he said.
ZF’s redundant steering system has no shared components. Mechanical backups for major systems in an autonomous vehicle are critical in case one system fails.
“You never know when things can go wrong,” Pandy said. He added, “You want the truck to come to a stop. You don’t want the truck to hit a building and come to a stop.”
During a demonstration at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio, ZF’s autonomous truck performed 45-degree turns and a followed a winding path common to a terminal.
ZF also showed the truck speeding up, cruising, slowing and braking on a 7.5-mile closed track. Turn signals activated. The horn honked.
ZF wants to sell its systems to truck makers working on Level 4 autonomous systems. By definition, Level 4 systems react to most situations without involving a human driver.
“Freight yards are much easier to control than highways in the middle of the desert,” said Antti Lindstrom, an analyst with IHS Markit. “Taking baby steps is critical. We still have a long way to go.”
Separately, Volvo Trucks is testing its driverless cab named Vera in yard work in Sweden.
Vera is a cables, autonomous vehicle that runs on electricity. It is designed to handle repetitive jobs in terminals, factories and ports. Top speed is about 25 mph. Volvo wants to create a network of operator-monitored Veras.
For starters, Vera will transport goods from a logistics center to a port terminal in Gothenburg.
“Autonomous transports with low noise levels and zero-exhaust emissions have an important role in the future of logistics,” said Mikael Karlsson, Volvo Trucks’ vice president of autonomous solutions. “(They) will benefit both business and society.”