WASHINGTON, D.C. – When connectivity, automation, and electro-mobility converge, North America will have a “highly efficient and integrated transportation system.”
But that doesn’t mean truck manufacturers such as Volvo Group will turn their attention away from proven technologies while the above-mentioned are in development. That was the message from Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer for Volvo Group, who spoke at a media roundtable on the subject of future truck technologies at the House of Sweden in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18.
Stenqvist said the industry is entering its “most fascinating and challenging era ever,” as new technologies are brought to market. However, he stressed the combustion engine isn’t going away anytime soon. Instead, said Stenqvist, “We will keep most of the well-known technologies and add some new extremely important technologies on top of them.”
He cited the U.S. Department of Energy-funded SuperTruck project as an example, and the SuperTruck 2 follow-up program. These projects layered experimental technologies on top of existing products available today, to create a more efficient vehicle. Some of those experimental technologies have since been put into development.
“The death of the combustion engine will not be today, not tomorrow, and not in 10 years,” Stenqvist said. “The combustion engine, when it comes to longhaul freight, is some kind of foundation for many years to come. We are investing heavily into next generation combustion engines and the combustion engine still has a lot of development potential.”
He mentioned Volvo’s new wave piston, rolled out on GHG17 engine models, as an example of how an existing design can be tweaked to provide greater efficiency.
“The diesel engine has been around for 141 years,” he said. “A piston has always looked like a piston. The wave shape makes a perfect design for the mix of fuel and air, and just by that shape of the piston, we’ve reduced fuel consumption by 2%.”
Stenqvist said Volvo Group will continue investing into areas such as rolling resistance, aerodynamics, and powertrain performance. But it will also be increasingly investing in emerging technologies, specifically connectivity, electro-mobility, and automation.
“We believe each of them can impact transportation as such that when – not if – they converge, we’ll see a radical shift when it comes to transportation,” Stenqvist predicted, adding transportation within city centers will be the first areas to benefit from these technologies.
Stenqvist noted Volvo has 600,000 connected trucks on the road, 200,000 of them within North America. He predicted new services around connectivity will continue to emerge, leading to a more software-driven transport industry.
“We are collecting a lot of data, and we are utilizing this data already,” Stenqvist said. “But there is still more we can do.”
Today, Volvo is using connectivity to increase uptime through remote diagnostics and its Greensboro, N.C.-based Uptime Center, and is also offering over-the-air engine software updates. Stenqvist said to expect further opportunities to emerge from connectivity.
Stenqvist said urban buses are already utilizing electric powertrains, whether they be hybrids or fully-electric vehicles. Full-electric Volvo buses have reduced energy consumption by 80%. Some are currently being tested in Montreal. Stenqvist said electric motors are highly efficiency and can eliminate local emissions.
He sees an opportunity to expand the use of electric vehicles into certain truck applications, beginning with medium-duty delivery trucks and heavy-duty refuse trucks. In California, a Mack Pinnacle is being tested that can switch from combustion engine mode to electric mode in areas that have the worst air pollution.
For long-haul operations, Stenqvist said electric highways are an option, with overhead wires powering heavy trucks.
“Not everywhere, but some kind of big network, east-west, north-south, between big hubs in certain parts of the world,” he explained. This concept also is currently being tested in California.
Autonomously-driven trucks will only be feasible if they can enhance – not reduce – highway safety, Stenqvist emphasized.
“We will never accept fully autonomous vehicles with lower safety demands,” he said.
Volvo is currently testing fully self-driving trucks in an underground mine in Sweden. It also has a self-driving refuse truck that the operator can set on autopilot in an urban area, and it follows him around “like a dog” as the driver walks alongside it loading trash bins. Stenqvist said harbor terminals and semi-confined highway operations – think dedicated autonomous truck lanes – will be the first to see fully-autonomous trucks.
Fully autonomous heavy-duty commercial vehicles won’t be used in city centers for a long time, Stenqvist predicted. “We are not even aiming for that, the traffic situation is so unpredictable,” he noted.
However, he added some levels of automation are available today, such as adaptive cruise control, and we should not think of autonomous vehicles as being driverless.
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