It works for aircraft. It works for harvesters in agriculture. So why shouldn’t refuse collection vehicles benefit from ‘autonomous technology’? Malcolm Bates got invited to a demonstration in the heart of Brussels where just such a question was posed.
This is surreal. I’m standing in a square in the heart of Brussels, Belgium. My day started out with what, to most people at my local railway station, would have been a commuter journey into the City of London. Instead, I transferred to a Eurostar train, arriving in Brussels just a couple of hours later.
But I’m not here to make representations to the European Parliament. Or to look at the admittedly rather grand architecture. I’m here to see a garbage truck that can drive itself. Seriously. And here it is, surrounded by a cordon of barriers – and some heavy-looking security guards wear- ing dark ‘shades’.
My first question? Are they here to stop the vehicle escaping? Or, more likely I guess, stop over-inquisitive passers-by getting too close? Not that any of them are looking inquisitively at a garbage truck – even one as advanced as this.
They mostly seem to be wondering why the square is covered in cones and barriers. And journalists. Clearly the organisers – Volvo Truck Corporation, together with compaction body manufacturer Geesink and the end- user, the waste contractor Renova, were keen the demonstration should go ahead without any hitch. Because aside from journalists from all over Europe, some very important people from the offices of various EU commissions and committees that might have a say in how road vehicles in the future might be operated and regulated, were also invited to the demonstration.
While I’m looking at the still stationary truck, I’m also wondering what happens if there was some interference, technical failure, or some other unforeseen set of circumstances. Would the autonomous refuse collection vehicle quite literally be able to drive itself off in the wrong direction? And if so, who could stop it?
Who would be legally responsible, in case of an accident? After all, it’s one thing for the technicians at Volvo to modify a truck to work ‘driverless’ in a mine, or quarry, or some other hostile environment. Any dangerous environment might endanger the life of the driver, so clearly, not having one is an advantage. But a garbage truck working in a typical subur- ban street containing parked cars, children playing and older people crossing the road at any time? That is surely a different scenario?
DESIGNED TO INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY
So is this a case of ‘technology gone mad’? Or are there some real advantages we all might have missed? Technicians at Volvo Truck Corporation, headed by Hayder Wokil, the director responsible for ‘Autonomous and Automated Driving’ development, have indeed already developed the technology to enable trucks (and agricultural and construction machinery) to operate more efficiently than would other- wise be possible by entirely manual control.
In Brazil, for example, ‘auto- pilot’ technology enables the trucks to follow in exactly the same tracks as the harvester in sugar cane fields, thus damaging less of the crop. In such a case, the driver is still in con- trol of speed – and braking – but the technology handles the steering in the fields.
In Sweden, Volvo trucks have indeed been modified to work totally autonomously in mines and quarries, where regular blasting requires a long safety period before sending in a manually driven truck. Because there is no driver in the cab, the fully autonomous vehicle is able to go into the work zone sooner, thus increasing productivity.
Autonomous technology can also offer advantages to operators of ve- hicles on the highway: computing the optimum engine revolutions, throttle input and braking can save a considerable amount of fuel, while reducing wear and tear on the truck’s brakes and driveline. The hard part is deciding how far this technology might – or should – go in the collection of waste and recy- clable materials.
READY TO GO REMOTE
The officials have arrived from a series of seminars now and we’re ready for the ‘live’ demonstration. To make full sense of the thinking employed by Volvo technicians, we need to remember that Sweden is a country of just 10 million people, many of whom live in rural areas. And because housing density out- side of the major cities is low, refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) tend to operate either with a driver and one crew member, or in many cases, just the driver. This is where the techno- logy is designed to help ...
The demonstration represents what in real life would be a cul-de-sac of suburban houses, each requiring the driver to make a stop, collect the bin, then move a few more metres to the next.
With a driver and one crew member, this would be an easy task, but for council (commune) collections in rural areas, or for commer- cial waste operations where only the driver is employed, it would involve the driver entering and exiting the cab in between every binlifting op- eration. Or requiring the driver to walk between each house, leaving the vehicle unattended. Or – and here’s a key safety issue - when under pres- sure, perhaps forget to engage the handbrake, after each stop. Or make a rash reversing manoeuvre, without checking it is safe to do so.
With the autonomous techno- logy, the RCV follows the driver from house to house without the need to get in and out of the cab between each lift. In Sweden and other cold climates, there is an added safety advantage in that each cab entry/ exit operation is a potential slip-up which might result in injury. So any- thing to reduce that number could potentially reduce the risk.
LEARNING THE ROUTE
But what about injury to pedestri- ans? What stops the vehicle running them over? Or the vehicle ending-up on a suburban lawn? And how does the vehicle ‘drive’ without the driver being in the cab? The answer is a combination of things. Firstly, this otherwise entirely standard-looking Volvo ‘FM330’ RCV chassis is fitted with four sensors located at each cor- ner.
These are capable of detecting anything that might be getting too close for comfort – like a parked car. Or small child. Secondly, the driver – who is likely to be walking from one bin to the next – has a small con- sole which contains a manual over- ride control to stop the vehicle in an emergency. But the really clever as- pect of the Volvo Autonomous RCV is that is already knows where it is going and what manoeuvre it needs to undertake next.
How? By the com- bination of GPS technology and route software – plus the fact that it is able to ‘learn’ the right sequence of events in any given collection round (route) from a manually controlled run with the driver in charge. It then replicates the same stops where each bin is located on subsequent visits.
To watch the vehicle following the driver at a slow walking pace between each bin, or container, helps make the point about reducing the risk to the driver from slipping on the cab steps due to icy conditions in northern climates like Norway or Sweden. But what about in the rest of the world?
According to Hayder Wokil, one of the other key areas of concern in respect of safety – and one with a wider global appeal – relates to damage to the vehicle and/or incidents involving the vehicle and pedestrians when reversing. Of course where a crew is employed, the rule should be that the driver only reverses while under the direction of a ‘banksman’ – a crew member tasked with the job of ensuring that it is safe for the vehicle to reverse.
Tragically, however, in spite of many modern RCVs having reversing radar warning systems and multi-camera CCTV systems (which automatically switch the driver’s screen to view the rear camera when reverse gear is engaged), injuries and even fatalities continue to occur. Hayder Wokil, who made a presentation in Brussels, points out that as the ‘driver’ is able to walk around the autonomous RCV as it reverses, it is possible to see any potential danger far sooner.
THE FUTURE IS
I’m now thinking of scenarios where this technology might work equally well, or perhaps even better. A side-loading recycler could be programmed to move forward like a slow-moving production line, while the crew sort and load the recyclables. Or how about at the landfill site, or waste transfer facility?
Volvo Construction Equipment has also been looking at ways of using autonomous technology – initially in relation to 360 excavators. But as with the trucks, the use of semi-automatic or automatic transmission enables a wheeled loader to follow a pre-deter- mined loading cycle, without direct driver input. In waste transfer facilities, safety issues often relate to vehi- cles reversing in poor light conditions – so could an autonomous solution with the ‘driver’ safely located on a remote catwalk, be better than having the driver in the cab?
Interestingly, Hayder Wokil doesn’t claim to have the answers to all these questions. He points out that Volvo has seen the benefits of using such technology in certain applications, but how this is utilised is up to the customer in each user group or indus- try. “When it comes to fine-tuning the solutions, we want to involve the cus- tomer. It is the customer who is the expert in their respective industry,” he explains.
But there was one more question that had been bugging me: Could the autonomous RCV unintentionally run its driver over? Hayder Wokil assures me that it couldn’t – but he wasn’t keen for me to throw myself in its path in order to prove it!
So what happens next? Like Hayder Wokil says, that’s very much up to you – the customer.