Volvo is ramping up its self-driving vehicle efforts with a trial of an autonomous garbage truck designed for use in cities.
The Swedish car maker has partnered with local waste and garbage specialists Renova for a project that’s setting out to explore “how automation can contribute to enhanced traffic safety, improved working conditions, and lower environmental impact,” according to a statement issued by Volvo.
As with countless other automotive companies, Volvo has previously announced a number of initiatives in the self-driving car realm, including a $300 million joint venture with Uber to develop autonomous cars. It’s also investing in driver-assistance systems in its current models.
“There is amazing potential to transform the swift pace of technical developments in automation into practical benefits for customers and, more broadly, society in general,” noted Volvo’s chief technology officer, Lars Stenqvist. “Our self-driving refuse truck is leading the way in this field globally, and one of several exciting autonomous innovations we are working with right now.”
Elsewhere in the truck realm, a number of automate automotive efforts are already underway. Swedish company Einride recently lifted the lid on an ambitious new project to bring electrically powered driverless trucks to market, while California’s Embark launched its self-driving truck tech to ease driver fatigue on long journeys, and Peloton raised big bucks to improve truck platoon safety and efficiency through automation.
But the one thing all these companies have in common is that the “automation” element is initially geared toward highway travel, with humans controlling the wheel in towns and cities. With the Volvo and Renova partnership, it’s all about using self-driving trucks in built-up urban environments.
According to Volvo, on-board sensors monitor the vehicle’s surroundings and stops if an obstacle appears — which is the least you’d hope for with any self-respecting self-driving vehicle. The very nature of a garbage collection service means that it typically follows the same route on its daily schedule, which suits autonomous driving — in Volvo’s tests, the route is pre-programmed.
There is a human “driver” inside the truck, who ensures the vehicle arrives at the given destination, for example a specific street. But the driver then exits the vehicle and walks ahead to focus on collecting the actual garbage, while the truck maneuvers itself between wheelie bins.
Volvo touts a number of advantages to working in this manner, though doesn’t mention anything about potential cost savings in human labor. Among the benefits, according to Volvo, are increased safety given that the truck will automatically stop while reversing if it encounters, for example, a child. Moreover, it says that it will help protect wear and tear in garbage collection employees.
“One important benefit of the new technology is a reduction in the risk of occupational injuries, such as wear in knee joints – otherwise a common ailment among staff working with refuse collection,” added Stenqvist.
The trial will continue through to the end of 2017, and it follows a similar experiment Volvo announced last year in underground mines.
If nothing else, such examples highlight how autonomous vehicles may eventually take a hold on society. The shift from human drivers to robots on public roads will be a slow and gradual process, with industry-specific use-cases, on pre-set routes, the first to tap the latent potential of self-driving transport before it finally hits the mainstream consumer market.