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Eliminating pollution by the truckload

Volvo Trucks races to reinvent trucking with electric propulsion and self-drive technology.

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Trucking firms have begun to experiment with ''platooning''. In platooning, the lead truck is controlled by a driver while the following vehicles are run by sensors.

Gothenburg

CHEAPER goods, quieter streets and cleaner air. These are some of the benefits we can enjoy when electric and autonomous trucks become commonplace in cities.

It's also a vision Volvo Trucks presented at Innovation Days 2018, an event held in the Swedish company's hometown of Gothenburg, where its engineers showcased what they're working on.

Tackling pollution is high on their to-do list, and for reasons close to home.

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"You might think that Gothenburg has pretty good air, but still we suffer about 300 premature deaths a year due to bad air quality," said Malin Andersson, head of development for Gothenburg's Urban Transport Administration. "Air pollution is a very important issue in cities worldwide today."

The problem is so serious that cities have declared war on diesel, which is seen as a dirty fuel, and even petrol. Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris have announced plans to ban diesel vehicles from their roads by 2025, while China, France, Germany, India and the UK have announced plans to ban the sale of pure fossil fuel-powered cars within the next 15 to 25 years.

That has companies like Volvo Trucks scrambling. The firm is developing a line of electric trucks that will go on sale in Europe next year. Its first customers will be haulage firm TGM and Swedish refuse collection company Renova.

The move from fossil fuels to electric power is far more beneficial to air quality in trucks than in cars for two reasons: trucks spend a lot more time on the roads than cars, and most cars still use cleaner-burning petrol - unlike trucks which are almost exclusively diesel-powered.

Volvo is also just as keen to tackle another form of urban pollution: noise.

"Low-frequency noises actually increase your stress hormones, which can lead to stress-related diseases, and also cognitive impairment among children. They don't learn so well in schools close to heavy traffic," said Ms Andersson, adding that quieter vehicles can improve productivity.

"A lot of cities have time limits for when heavy trucks can be on the road. If these trucks are allowed into cities only during off-peak hours, the roads will be less congested," said Lars Martensson, environment and innovation director for Volvo Trucks International.

Clearer roads also mean smoother deliveries, he told The Business Times. "There are several cities in the world that have been testing off-peak deliveries, and these tests have shown that it's possible to reduce the delivery time by more than 60 per cent, a significant reduction."

Singapore has no noise pollution laws preventing trucks from making midnight deliveries, but electric trucks can lower business costs more directly. Their efficiency translates to lower cost than using a diesel truck to cover the same distance, and their motors cost less to service and maintain than an engine and a transmission.

Volvo said electric trucks will lower operating costs for logistics companies, which in turn will lower the price of goods if the savings are passed on to consumers.

But Volvo believes the biggest leap forward in trucking will come when trucks are able to drive themselves. Drivers won't become obsolete overnight. Instead, they will be assisted by driver aids.

For example, trucking firms have begun to experiment with "platooning", a feature that lets two or more trucks move in close formation on the highway. Doing so reduces air resistance, much like how a cycling team conserves energy by riding in each other's slipstream, and can cut fuel consumption by 10 per cent for the trucks following behind.

In platooning, the lead truck is controlled by a driver while the following vehicles are run by sensors. But eliminating the driver altogether is a logical final step, especially for cost reduction. A driverless truck can work non-stop, doesn't need a salary and will not go on strike.

Driverless trucks are already on trial in secluded areas. Volvo Trucks has deployed one such truck at Boliden Mine in Sweden, where it's programmed to transport rocks.

Closed roads are much more suited to testing such vehicles.

"When it comes to highly-automated functions, we can proceed much faster in closed areas like mines, airports or farms," said Hayder Wokil, autonomous and automated driving product manager for Volvo Trucks International. "Speeds are low, we have control of people, and there's no legal demand beyond the general directives for machinery at each site."

Volvo Trucks showed BT a prototype that might fit well in a Singapore setting - an autonomous refuse truck that can drive itself at a low speed from house to house. A driver can pilot the truck on busy roads, but switch jobs to walk alongside it and empty bins into the compactor as the truck drives itself through an estate.

Making such a truck electric means less disturbance to residents and a calmer working environment for the operator.

An array of radar, Lidar, and other sensors ensures the truck stops immediately if it detects an obstacle, such as a child dashing across in front of it.

But legislative barriers are harder to breach than technical ones, according to Mr Wokil.

"When we asked permission to run our platooning challenge from Gothenburg to Rotterdam in The Netherlands via Denmark and Germany, none of the countries could agree on the minimum distance between trucks," he said.

"Even though they are neighbouring countries within the EU, there are different demands and standards that need to be standardised."

Lawmakers will take years to work out new industry standards for the trucking industry to follow, but electric trucks are just around the corner.

Along with Volvo, the likes of Daimler, Tesla and Volkswagen are racing to put these efficient machines on the market.

The trucking revolution may take a while to get underway, but it's already off to a quiet start.