Driving down a highway south of Stockholm in a 40-ton truck and trailer, the driver keeps a careful eye on the road, but does not have his hands on the wheel.
Instead, the truck drives itself, and veteran driver Roger Nordqvist stands by only in case of unexpected problems.
The Swedish truck manufacturer Scania is not the only car manufacturer developing autonomous vehiclesbut it recently became the first in Europe to pilot them while delivering commercial goods.
“We take their goods from point A, drive them to point B, completely autonomously,” Peter Hafmar, head of autonomous solutions at Scania, told AFP outside the company’s transport lab in Södertälje, south of Stockholm.
In it pilot projectmaneuvers the self-driving truck a distance of about 300 kilometers (186 miles) between Södertälje and Jönköping in southern Sweden, delivering fast food items.
From the outside, the vehicle looks almost like any truck, except for a roof rail packed with cameras and two sensors that resemble insect antennae on the sides.
Inside the cabin, the wheel and seats are where you’d expect to find them, but small devices and screens dot the dash and a nest of wires runs to the computer rack behind the passenger seat.
“Drive better by yourself”
Engineer Göran Fjallid sits next to the safety driver in the passenger seat, his eyes glued to his laptop as it receives video from the truck’s cameras and flickering text with information about what the vehicle is seeing.
A second screen shows a 3D visualization of the truck on the road and all nearby vehicles.
The truck combines all the input from the different sensors with a GPS system, where the different technologies act as a backup for each other.
– If the road markings disappear for a while, it uses the GPS and it stays perfectly in its lane, explains Fjallid.
“It drives better by itself than when you drive it manually,” he adds.
But he admits a lot of trial and error went into getting the truck to that point.
They’ve had to adjust things like how the truck handles entering the freeway, and what to do when another car cuts in front of it.
Every time the truck does something unexpected, such as braking or slowing down for no apparent reason, Fjallid makes a note of the exact moment so that the logs and data can be reviewed.
The truck’s sensors are also calibrated daily before it hits the road.
Hafmar says there are still some hurdles to clear before driverless trucks – without safety drivers – become a common sight on the roads, both in terms of technology and legislation.
They expect to have this ready in the late 2020s or early 2030s, says Hafmar.
No more truck drivers?
The advent of self-driving trucks can be seen as a threat to jobs too truck drivers—one of the world’s most common professions.
But Hafmar insists autonomous vehicles are needed to address a global driver shortage.
And, he says, it will be a long time before that Artificial Intelligence will be able to handle all aspects of logistics.
Initially, self-driving trucks will likely be used for long-distance trips, but the last mile to stores and customers “will be done with human drivers,” Hafmar adds.
According to a report by the International Road Transport Union (IRU) in June, there were approximately 2.6 million unfilled positions for truck drivers around the world in 2021.
Hafmar also points out something else Potential benefits: because computers don’t need to sleep or rest, the vehicles can be scheduled to travel at times when there is less traffic, or drive slower – but longer – to save on fuel.
A host of other companies are also in the race to launch self-driving trucks.
Startups Aurora, Waymo, Embark, Kodiak and Torc (along with Daimler) are running tests in the US, while China’s Baidu announced a self-driving truck at the end of 2021.
In Europe, IVECO is working with Californian start-up Plus, which is backed by Amazon, and recently announced the end of their first phase of circuit testing. They will also launch road tests.
The Swedish company Einride also plans to launch way tests in Germany soon.
© 2022 AFP
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