Far from the sleek and futuristic concept cars often showcased by automakers, the first iterations of self-driving vehicles to reach the road may be no more glamorous than garbage trucks. That’s because they may literally be garbage trucks.
Volvo has started work on joint research and development with Renova, a waste-disposal company in western Sweden. The project explores how automated garbage trucks can make pickup more efficient and safe in urban environments. Renova is owned by 10 municipalities in western Sweden and operates a fleet of 220 heavy vehicles. The work is expected to continue through the end of 2017.
“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,” said Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer of Volvo Group.
The project emerged as an offshoot to the company’s ongoing research into self-driving trucks, which continues in the Kristineberg Mine in northern Sweden. Volvo says the technology used for mining operations is similar to what’s needed for a garbage truck, and it’s easy to see why the company would consider the latter as a potential opportunity.
Many of the first automated vehicles to first reach public roads, especially in complex environments like cities, will need to operate at low speeds and travel along predefined or pre-mapped routes. Garbage trucks, with their predictable schedules and inchworm pace, fit both parameters. Further, commercial operators could cut the labor costs of two-person crews, electing instead to let the vehicle drive itself while a human handles the trash collection.
Autonomous operations could offer environmental upsides, with the truck optimizing its gearchanges, steering, and speed for the lowest possible consumption. Along with that, there could be other, more unexpected human advantages.
“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,” Stenqvist said.
Volvo didn’t detail what types of sensors the vehicles are using to detect and navigating through their environment. In pictures of test vehicles, there appear to be lidar units affixed to the four corners of the garbage truck, data from which is likely fused with radar- and camera-based information.
Although it has kept a lower profile than some of its competitors, Volvo has been active in pioneering autonomous technology. It has partnered with Uber, providing autonomous XC90 SUVs that are later outfitted with Uber’s self-driving system. Separately, Volvo has begun efforts to equip approximately 100 ordinary families with self-driving vehicles for use within a geofenced area in and around Gothenburg, Sweden, by the end of 2017. Late last year, Volvo teamed with Autoliv, one of its primary suppliers, to announce the formation of a new company, Zenuity, which houses the development of autonomous-driving software and driver-assistance systems.