Engineers at Volvo have teamed up with Swedish waste management company Renova to develop the world’s first autonomous refuse collection vehicles. The goal of these vehicles is to make waste collection faster, safer, and more efficient than it currently is.
The setup for these self-driving trucks is simple but effective. The route is mapped out entirely beforehand, so there are no surprises for the human passengers. GPS and lidar-based systems constantly scan the surrounding area to provide a perfect picture of what is going on around the truck at all times. The truck itself proceeds at a speed that is barely above walking, making things even safer. Should anything unexpected happen, the truck is designed to stop should an obstacle in the road appear. From that point, the driver simply has to jump out at each stop, grab the bins of waste, and return to the truck.
“Driving a heavy commercial vehicle in an urban residential area with narrow streets and vulnerable road users naturally imposes major demands on safety, even when the vehicle’s speed doesn’t exceed a normal walking pace. The refuse truck we are now testing continuously monitors its surroundings and immediately stops if an obstacle suddenly appears on the road. At the same time, the automated system creates better prerequisites for the driver to keep a watchful eye on everything that happens near the truck.”
These trucks, which have been tested in Sweden since 2016, further demonstrate the way humans can work with autonomous vehicles. The human component is essential, and their work is aided by the self-driving truck. In fact, engineers believe that these trucks will help reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with the job; truck drivers will no longer have to worry about unexpected objects appearing in the road, or the routes their trucks will take during their shift.
This project will continue to run through 2017, at which point Volvo will take a long, hard look at all the data it’s collected. From there, the company will decide whether or not to go forward and continue its work with autonomous waste vehicles. Could we see these trucks in the United States in the future? Only time — and the results of all the research — will really tell. Regardless, this experiment in combining human workers with autonomous vehicles has been a fascinating, and ultimately rewarding, endeavor.