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Volvo helps pioneer ‘hands-free’ driving

Swedish carmaker Volvo wants to let drivers kick back, take their hands off the wheel, and catch up on a little TV while barreling down the motorway, all in the name of improving road safety, The Local's Geoff Mortimore explains.

Volvo helps pioneer 'hands-free' driving

Have you ever thought how nice it would be during those long motorway drives through Sweden if you could take your hands off the wheel, put your feet up, perhaps watch some TV, or surf the web?

As it turns out, the day when “driving” without keeping your eyes on the road may be possible sooner than previously thought thanks in part to Swedish carmaker Volvo’s involvement in a road train project currently under development.

Volvo is one of the members of an EU funded project called SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) which is pioneering a driver-free project known as a road train.

In essence, the concept involves putting your car on autopilot and joining the so-called trains, controlled by a lead vehicle.

Besides Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology, the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden is also involved with SARTRE, which is led by engineering company Ricardo UK Ltd.

Other major players include Idiada and Robotiker-Tecnalia of Spain, as well as Institut für Kraftfahrwesen Aachen (IKA) of Germany.

Also known as platooning, the scheme involves car drivers using a GPS to find out if a road train is near, while radar can determine the vehicles’ following distance to each other. Electronic throttles and power steering units would allow the lead vehicle to control each car in the train.

The idea is predicated on the assumption that, if you know you are going to drive on a long motorway stretch, you can even “book” your place in the convoy in advance, or detect a signal whilst on the move and “hop on”.

Once you are “locked in” by the computerized signal, the controls of your car are detected and directed by the lead vehicle. After that you can do what you like until you are ready to leave the convoy. At this stage the gap between you and the other cars is slowly widened so you can safely exit and continue your journey hands-on.

Trials have already been carried out near Gothenburg, where a Volvo S60 followed a lead truck around the carmaker’s test facility, while other pilot projects are due to take place soon in Spain and the UK.

The success of the scheme relies heavily on the lead vehicle. This will be fitted out with the necessary safety equipment to control the other vehicles and driven by a specially trained professional.

“We were very pleased with the success of the first real test, not least because it was the first time that all the various partners in the project had come together at the same time,” says Erik Coelingh, an engineering specialist at Volvo Cars.

“Braking, accelerating, the camera system and all the key aspects worked without any problems.”

The road train system is designed to improve a number of things, Coelingh explains.

Firstly, the system is meant to improve road safety by reducing the likelihood of human error, whicgh accounts for at least 80 percent of road accidents.

Secondly, road trains will also reduce fuel consumption and thus CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent.

In addition, the system is also expected to relieve traffic congestion by using roadway space more efficiently.

Vehicles are expected to travel at motorway speeds, but with only a few metres separating each car, which is a key reason why the EU is so interested in the project.

“Platooning” as part of a road train is also convenient for the driver because it frees up time for other activities, what Coelingh refers to as “driver freedom”.

“It is great to have the possibility to do other things and really relax, whether that means reading a newspaper or checking the computer or something else,” he explains.

“Those of us who drive actually enjoy it most of the time, but the same daily journey to and from work, for instance, can get tedious, so platooning would really be a bonus at a time like that.”

The next step will be carrying out more extensive trials using more vehicles, which could happen after the summer of 2012.

Then, if successful, there will several years of testing, improving the technical aspects and not least navigating what promises to be a highly complex legal process to clear the project across so many countries.

As a result, it is unlikely that we will see a road train in action on our motorways for at least another ten years.

Nevertheless, Coelingh remains bullish about what he sees as the enormous potential of platooning. Although he admits that improving road safety isn’t the only reason he’s involved with road trains.

“Above all, it is a really fun project to be involved with” he concludes.

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VOLVO

Sweden’s Volvo regains strength after pandemic puts brakes on earnings

Swedish truck maker Volvo Group was hit by a sharp drop in earnings due to the coronavirus pandemic, but business rebounded at the end of the year.

Sweden's Volvo regains strength after pandemic puts brakes on earnings
Volvo Group CEO Martin Lundstedt. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

In 2020, the group saw “dramatic fluctuations in demand” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, chief executive Martin Lundstedt said in a statement.

For 2021, Volvo raised its sales forecasts in its trucks division – its core business – in Europe, North America and Brazil.

However, it said it also expected “production disturbances and increased costs” due to a “strained” supply chain, noting a global shortage of semiconductors across industries.

The truck making sector is particularly sensitive to the global economic situation and is usually hard hit during crises.

In March, as the pandemic took hold around the world, Volvo suspended operations at most of its sites in 18 countries and halted production at Renault Trucks, which it owns, in Belgium and France.

Operations gradually resumed mid-year, but not enough to compensate for the drop in earnings.

With annual sales down 22 percent to 338 billion kronor (33.4 billion euros, $40 billion), the group posted a 46 percent plunge in net profit to 19.3 billion kronor (1.9 billion euros).

Operating margin fell from 11.5 to 8.1 percent.

However, the group did manage to cut costs by 20 percent.

“We have significantly improved our volume and cost flexibility, which were crucial factors behind our earnings resilience in 2020,” the group said.

Volvo's business regained strength in the second half of the year.

“Customer usage of trucks and machines increased when the Covid-19 restrictions were eased during the summer and this development continued during both the third and fourth quarters,” it said.

“Both the transport activity and the construction business are back at levels on par with the prior year in most markets.”

For the fourth quarter alone, the company reported a 38-percent rise in net profit from a year earlier.

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