Autonomous Trucks Are Unstoppable

Whether we like it or not, autonomous trucks are unstoppable, the progress being made is substantial. Diesel News talks to one of those working hard behind the scenes, Hayder Wokil, who runs the Volvo autonomous research program.

The job title held by Volvo’s Hayder Wokil doesn’t really tell us much. He is the Mobility and Automation Director, but when asked what exactly it is he does do, the laconic Hayder replies, “the question really should be, what doesn’t he do?” This suggests the role is a wide-ranging one and one which will change as new developments come along.

“We are the organisation in Gothenburg in Sweden, we are a Volvo Trucks brand organisation,” says Hayder. “I belong to a group called ‘Product Strategies’. We work on short-term as well as long-term strategies, and I am responsible for automation. We look into the far future, looking what our engineers are doing in advanced engineering.

“Our horizon can be 10+ years. Then you start to see whether something adds value for our customer and then we can bring it forward as a project, or just keep an eye on it. Sometimes it might be good, just for the technology’s sake, showing we have the capacity, attracting people to work for Volvo. We communicate about it. I work on the priorities as well, deciding, perhaps, we will have this before that. Autonomous trucks is one element among many other features within automation.”

The Society of Automotive Engineers International has come up with a classification system for autonomous vehicles. There are six classes, all the way from no automation (zero) at all to full automation (five), where the truck goes from point A to point B with no human input whatsoever.

Currently, we are seeing classes one and two being tested on our roads, with some automated systems, like adaptive cruise control and lane keeping, controlling the truck, but the human driver needs to be aware of what’s going on and intervene, as well as handling more difficult manoeuvres.

The next stage we can expect to see in testing will be one where the truck can handle most tasks on its own, but a driver will be expected to intervene if and when required. Once this concept is proven, we can then move to high automation, where the truck controls everything, but may ask a human for assistance for certain difficult driving tasks. This stage inevitably leads on to stage five, with complete control of the entire task falling to the autonomous control system.

“If we look at automation, the first four levels are driver assistance,” says Hayder. “If the driver has to intervene, this is not autonomous. It is only at level five, we have autonomous, the rest are simply driver assistance. I think it is good to have this in mind when we talk about autonomous trucks.

“The first thing I have noticed in what people think about in automation is the driverless truck. This is not necessarily the case. We are working with all levels of automation and you don’t necessarily have to go through each stage to get to fully autonomous trucks.

“There are systems like one where you are sitting in a traffic queue and the truck can stop and go automatically and stay in the lane, while the driver can answer emails, or whatever, as long as it stays below 30km/h. This system will never go to fully autonomous.”