The goal of most autonomous vehicle development is aimed at cutting humans out of the vehicle’s operation as much as possible. One Swedish company, Einride, is working on a concept that treats autonomous trucks more like drones. They allow a remotely located “driver” to take over operation of their “Pod” trucks when needed. The Economist reports:
The Pod was made by Einride, a Swedish firm founded in 2016 by Robert Falck, an engineer who used to work for Volvo. Mr Falck thinks that the technology of vehicle autonomy, long experimental, has now evolved sufficiently for driverless goods vehicles to begin earning their livings properly. Some Pods are already in trials for real jobs: running between warehouses, hauling logs from forests and delivering goods for Lidl, a supermarket group.
Like other autonomous vehicles in development, the Pod navigates and avoids obstacles using a combination of sensors which include satellite-positioning, cameras, radar and lidar (an optical-frequency analogue of radar that employs reflected laser light to build up a three-dimensional image of a vehicle’s surroundings). Its power comes from lithium-ion batteries, and these provide a range of up to 180km between charges.
Where Mr Falck’s lorry differs from those others is in the way that it tries to deal with the regulatory concerns which prevent fully autonomous vehicles from being let loose on public roads. Einride’s initial approach is to avoid them, by avoiding the roads in question. The first version of the Pod is instead designed to operate on designated routes within the confines of enclosed, private areas such as ports and industrial parks. Here, Pods act like bigger and smarter versions of the delivery robots that already run around some factories—though, having the ability to carry 16 tonnes, and with room for 15 industrial pallets-worth of goods, they are indeed quite a lot bigger.
The second difference from most other attempts at vehicle autonomy is the Pod’s approach to the word “autonomy”. Some makers take the idea literally, and aim to keep humans out of the decision-making loop entirely. Others, often prompted by traffic regulations, arrange things so that a normally passive human occupant can take the controls if necessary. Pods pursue a third way. They always have a human in the loop, but this is a remote operator who keeps an eye on what is happening and is ready to take over the driving for a difficult manoeuvre or if something goes wrong.
Having the driver sitting back at HQ rather than in the vehicle itself is a departure from convention, but not, of itself, a huge one. Aerial drones are usually controlled remotely in this way. The radical step is that Mr Falck believes you do not need a remote driver for each Pod. Einride already uses one remote driver to control two pods, but plans eventually for a single driver to look after ten.
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