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The reliability of autonomous off-road driving

We hear so much about a self-driving car revolution – but precious little evidence of it on our roads. While manufacturers struggle to introduce the technology and authorities hesitate over safety concerns, there IS a new wave of autonomous driving happening across the world. It’s in off-road commercial vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles are booming in the heavy-duty realm of construction, farming, industry and even freight rail transport.

It’s not clear who really wants self-driving cars but off-road it’s a very different story. The shortage of drivers and the cost of training new ones is pushing these developments much faster. From vehicles to off-road handling tires like venom power, it is a keen interest within the motoring industry and many brands and developers are jumping to create the best product.

The technology is already helping to reduce costs and improve productivity for a variety of industries.

Why self-driving works better off-road

Private commercial environments are more easily controlled. The settings are much less complex than crowded highways or urban streets. Manufacturers have realised these industrial sites can be a safe and easy testing ground for the emerging technology.

But how widespread is self-driving in the world’s industry?

Just one example is Caterpillar, which deployed its first massive autonomous mining trucks in Australia in 2013. It now has more than 600 operating worldwide. These are operating in locations like Luck Stone’s Bull Run Quarry in Virginia, USA, shifting rocks, gravel, and sand.

Caterpillar is monitoring these vehicles and planning to introduce autonomy to smaller and smaller vehicles, like standard bulldozers on building sites. At the same time Deere & Co is tackling the shortage of farm labour and transforming the farming world with its autonomous tractors.

Elsewhere specialist operators are retrofitting older machines with remote-operated technology for many commercial applications.

Industry experts predict that the next stage will involve truly game-changing tech, like shipping containers that can transport themselves onto railroad tracks using computer-controlled self-charging electric motors.

This could mean less freight on our roads, less carbon emissions in the transport of goods and free up precious human drivers for the more complex tasks of final deliveries.

Will the development of autonomous commercial vehicles stall when money runs out?

Industry experts insist this is unlikely. The technology is attracted bigger and bigger investment and higher cost savings. The vehicles are showing huge gains in safety and reliability.

What is less clear is whether these rugged and harsh operating environments are useful for the development of road-going autonomous vehicles.

Engineers at Volvo Construction recently established a new specialist off-shoot called Volvo Autonomous Solutions. “Creating autonomous transport is proving hard to perfect,” says a spokesman.

“Automation has struggled because engineers are trying to get autonomous vehicles to work everywhere with all the variables of life – cars, trucks, bikes, people, dogs, cats, you name it.

“Solving all of these issues at the same time is an enormously complex challenge, even for the world’s biggest automotive and technology companies.”

Volvo Autonomous is tackling this by focusing on specific confined environments and then building from there. Quarries are an easily controlled starting point, with their definite load-and-dump and generally short circuits.

The Volvo TARA unmanned hauler is already being used at several mining sites in Europe. It uses a system of battery charging stations and a central control tower.

A series of 15-ton TARA vehicles can be linked together to form a train for loading, hauling, and unloading efficiency.
These quarry machines from Sweden use GPS, lidar sensors and radar to operate closely with traditional manned equipment, like excavators and trucks.

TARA vehicles charge completely automatically, with a 150-kilowatt high-power charger on the ground connecting to a pick-up under the vehicle. Charge times are quick – up to just three minutes.

The future looks autonomous

Operators are finding self-driving transport solutions like these are proving to be extremely cost-effective. They can operate 24/7 – without any human intervention.

This makes them safer, more reliable, and efficient than any human-operated alternative. And that’s why experts predict that we will soon be seeing a lot more autonomous commercial off-road vehicles operating across the world.

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