Smart trailers, predictive safety systems part of the future of trucking

by Lou Smyrlis

NEWPORT, R.I. – Can you imagine driving a tractor-trailer combination where the trailer is smarter than the tractor and can operate independently?

Volvo Trucks can and its executives took the opportunity to share with clients and media their view of how different trucking can be in the future. The information session with Volvo C-suite executives took place during the North American leg of the Volvo Ocean Race hosted by Newport, Rhode Island.

“Why does the tractor have to pull everything?” asked Jeff Cotner, chief designer with Volvo Trucks in presenting a future vision where trailers can operate under their own power and, having no physical connection to the tractor, are free to join up with and follow the tractor in platoon formation with other similarly smart trailers and then break off and drive themselves to different destinations along the way, all done at road speed.

Essentially in such a vision trucking would operate similar to railroads with the driver in the lead vehicle monitoring the constant coupling and uncoupling of smart trailers in the platoon formation. Perhaps such a platoon of trailers can also include passengers in specialized trailers who, using an Uber-type booking system, can join the platoon if it’s heading towards their destination. Although the technology is still not there, passengers being part of commercial movements is not far-fetched. It already occurs in global ocean freight transport. Some container ships include berthing for passengers.

Considering such trailers would be far more costly and the trailers currently are the lowest-cost part of the tractor-trailer combination, Truck News asked Cotner if there could be enough savings found through improved operational and fuel efficiencies to justify the much higher cost in trailers.

Cotner pointed out that in such a vision the trailer, which operates under its own power, replaces the truck in many situations and fleets will save money by not having to purchase as many trucks. Also in platooning situations where there is a driver in the lead truck but no drivers in the trailers that follow it, there are considerable savings in labour costs.

Such a vision would also likely require changes to the road system so that such combinations can travel in their own lanes, acknowledged Cotner, but Volvo is already working with California to on a bill that would allow for platooning of three to four trucks using sensing technology to follow each other in tight formation that would be considered tailgaiting under current legislation. By tightening up the following distance, significant drafting advantages are created which improve fuel economy and the advanced sensing and camera technologies onboard make it safe to do so, according to Volvo.

Cotner also wondered how autonomous vehicle technology – which enables the tractor to drive itself while the driver simply monitors operations, rests, or looks to other tasks while in the cab such as communicating with customers – would affect the profession’s image.

“What can we do inside the truck to make the profession more interesting? What can we do so the driver can have a better lifestyle but for it to also be good for business?” he asked. “Drivers stepping away from the steering wheel is coming – it’s not if but when. Does that make the profession more interesting? Does it allow owners to get better people?”

In the meantime, Volvo is using lessons learned by participating in the SuperTruck project to make powertrain and tractor fairing design changes which have made for a 3.5% gain in aerodynamics and a 2% powertrain improvement for specific applications.

As the inventors of the three-point seatbelt, Volvo has a strong tradition of focusing on safety and company officials vow that future technologies will continue that focus.

“Why do accidents happen? Why do some drivers have more accidents than others? We’ve been learning from accidents since 1969 and 90% are due to human error,” said Carl Johan Almqvist, director, traffic and product safety.

Distraction, alcohol, speed, and no seat belt use all contribute to accidents caused and the injuries and fatalities that result. Speed is a particular issue because the human brain is not equipped with a particularly good speed sensor, according to Almqvist.

“We human beings don’t understand speed at all. We don’t have a speed sensor. This is a challenge for us in traffic. Speed kills,” Almqvist said.

For example, when we come up too fast on slow-moving vehicles we often need to see a change happen – such as brake lights coming on – to recognize quickly enough the danger of the situation. Yet when we are distracted or look away and miss the brake lights coming on we may not react quickly enough and end up running into the back of the slower moving or stationary vehicle.

Almqvist said Volvo believes in employing technology such as Enhanced Cruise with Active Braking to support the driver in such situations. When a crash is imminent and the driver is not responding to alerts, the system takes over and brakes the vehicle to avoid the collision.

Looking further ahead Volvo Trucks wants to further develop its active safety technology with the aim of going beyond where human eyes can see.

“We are trying to create an artificial brain that can predict what’s going to happen (in traffic) and support the driver to keep him out of trouble,” Almqvist said. For example, Volvo is experimenting with technology that provides a 360-degree scan of the truck’s environment and takes over to avoid an accident. The driver missed the cyclist in the blind spot on his right and is about to attempt a right hand turn that will cause the cyclist to smash into the truck? No problem, the active safety system takes over and stops the vehicle from making the right turn.

Almqvist said such systems will be available five to 10 years from now.

He added Volvo Trucks has a vision of attaining zero accidents with its vehicles. Think that’s impossible? Almqvist doesn’t think so.

“I think it is actually possible. This is where you get into mindsets,” he said pointing out that in 1997 Sweden adopted a zero vision for fatalities on its roads. Many scoffed at the impossibility of such a goal yet last year Sweden enjoyed no fatalities on its roads for 30% of the year.

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