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20 June 2019

Volvo’s autonomous Vera raises infrastructure transformation question

Volvo has announced that its self-driving Vera tractor is going to be operating in a container shipping center in Sweden, in a partnership with logistics firm DFDS. The Vera truck, unveiled last year, is going to be limited to a pretty small run between the center and the port, but its form factor raises the question of whether we are going to have to adapt electric trucks to the requirements, or overhaul the roads and processes to suit the trucks.

New Atlas has a gallery of the Vera in the new DFDS project, but the truck is essentially just a cut-off version of a conventional truck that doesn’t extend upwards much past the wheels. Because it doesn’t have to accommodate a human driver, and therefore the cabin, it is a vastly more compact design – powered by the electric drivetrain and batteries found in Volvo’s other electric trucks.

However, what if we were to fill the saved space with a whole heap of batteries? Electric trucks have been treated with great skepticism because of their comparatively poor ranges, limiting their usage to tasks like this DFDS scenario, where the distance from the DFDS center to the APM Terminal is only about 6km by road. That sort of trip can be easily managed by a truck like Vera, but what of the long-distance road freight that is still dominated by diesel?

Volvo says Vera is suited for short distances, and the trip on the public roads in an industrial area is going to be pretty low risk, thanks to the lack of the complex and challenging scenarios found in city centers. But it does seem that Volvo could stick a huge bank of batteries on top of the Vera platform, to turn the vehicle into a long-range candidate.

It would, we hope, ensure that this bank would be modular, so that it could be easily swapped out to provide quicker turnarounds for the trucks. These banks would then need to be recharged, and could even see them used as a scaled-up version of the eMotorWerks (now owned by Enel) JuiceBox platform, which sees EV used as grid-scale energy storage assets.

This would be something of a departure for such distribution centers, and there’s likely not much appetite for them to become utility services providers, but of course, that’s an opportunity for a third-party or a systems integrator to exploit. The road freight operators, if sufficient ranges are capable, will be tempted by the reduced fuel costs alone, which again might dampen appetite to expand beyond the initial benefit.

However, adapting the trucks to the application is going to be a much easier job than adapting the roads to the constraints of the vehicles. We’ve seen Siemens’ eHighway system evolve over the years, which is essentially just a way to convert the electrical supply systems used in trams and light rail to trucks, but which would require running such overhead gantries along all the major roads used by these trucks – a huge undertaking that would take decades and be plagued by interoperability problems.

Sure, you don’t have to run the overhead infrastructure for all roads – just the major trucking corridors. But the amount of electricity infrastructure that needs to be added to the sides of the roads is vast, and once you factor in the number of bridges and similar obstructions that would need to be moved or accommodated, such upgrades become a pretty gargantuan task to pull off – and that’s before you factor in how you go about billing these trucks for topping up on the go.

So then, it seems that filling the truck with batteries is the path of lesser resistance, but then the question becomes whether you need to embrace completely driverless cars to accommodate sufficient battery capacity, or if you could cram enough in there while still leaving room for a human driver. Electrification is going to be the real revolution in the automotive industry, almost certainly arriving before full autonomy, but trucking may well be stuck in that catch-22 – that if can’t embrace electric drivetrains until it can replace the meat-sacks at the wheel.

In the meantime, it does look like DFDS has solved the integration problem, of adapting the current operations to the Vera. Future work will be done to automate other aspects of the system, including things like port gates and overhead machinery, apparently.

“We want to be at the forefront of connected, autonomous transportation. This collaboration will help us develop an efficient, flexible and sustainable long-term solution for receiving autonomous vehicles arriving at our gates, benefitting our customers, the environment and our business,” said Torben Carlsen, CEO of DFDS.

A control tower monitors the trucks on the road, which don’t exceed 40km/h. Also involved is e Swedish Innovation Agency Vinnova, the Swedish Transport Administration and the Swedish Energy Agency through the Strategic vehicle research and innovation program FFI.

“Autonomous transports with low noise levels and zero exhaust emissions have an important role to play in the future of logistics, and will benefit both business and society,” says Mikael Karlsson, Vice President Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “We see this collaboration as an important start and want to drive progress in this area. Vera may have a speed limit, but we don’t. Testing has already started and we intend to implement the solution within the coming years.”