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Why You Should Care About Off-Road Vehicle Automation

William Drier
Nov 15, 2018

Electric Truck

Most headlines about the coming wave of vehicle automation focus on passenger applications. They typically concern the real debut of driverless ride-hail vehicles or how automated driver assistance systems will emerge in your next vehicle. Such advances will truly be transformative to our daily lives in the near to distant future. But they typically ignore deployments in off-road and commercial vehicles that are happening now and tell us a great deal about the potential benefits of passenger vehicle automation.

The Off-Road Test Bed

One of the earliest examples of off-road automation was the DARPA-funded Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV), from Lockheed Martin in 1985. This military technology has evolved into Lockheed’s Convoy Active Safety Technology, which allows vehicles to follow the movements of another truck, and the Squad Missions Support Systems, which enables a vehicle to track and follow a single soldier. Lockheed is also investing in another off-road segment: underwater.

One of the current front-runners in off-road automated vehicles is Komatsu, based in Tokyo, Japan. Komatsu began piloting automated haulage trucks in 2008 at iron mines in Australia. Rio Tinto, a mining company that uses Komatsu’s systems, reported the automated vehicles operated 700 hours more per year than the non-automated ones, and that they did so with 15% lower costs. Rio Tinto anticipates almost doubling its automated fleet from 80 to 140 by the end of 2019.

Mines and Other Off-Road Testing

Indeed, mines have been popular environments for automated vehicle (AV) development, as evidenced by Volvo’s activities. Volvo has tested its automated off-road vehicles a few times, first in underground mines in 2016, and last year in Brazil to increase productivity at sugarcane fields. Not to be left behind, Mercedes-Benz is also testing AVs in off-road applications. In October 2017, the company demonstrated a synchronized fleet of automated trucks used to remove snow from an airfield.

These off-road developments are gradually bleeding into on-road commercial vehicle applications. Lockheed Martin has successfully demonstrated its on-road Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System and has been selected to lead the US military’s automated convoy program. Meanwhile, Volvo demonstrated an automated refuse truck at the end of 2017, and in September 2018, Volvo announced the Volvo Vera, a concept automated truck intended for high utilization drayage and hub-to-hub operations. The Vera is an outgrowth of demonstrations in 2017 for hub-to-hub operations in China.

Don’t Ignore the Potential of Off-Road Applications

It’s no wonder that commercialization in off-road applications precedes on-road. Many off-road applications have few complex environments to navigate, and thus are good test beds where companies can gather real-world data and develop their technology with less risk. It also provides the opportunity to reduce automation costs through scale.

AVs promise efficiency gains and reduced ownership costs. The early commercialization in off-road use cases is demonstrating this. Proving these technologies off-road and in specific goods or service vehicle (refuse) applications is an incremental and vital step to instilling public confidence in the future wave of driverless vehicles for passengers.