Eldorado for Autonomous Driverless Systems

In the Hamburg container terminal in Altenwerder autonomous vehicles drive all by themselves – without a trace of the driver. The vehicles move in a closed zone which is an ideal testing area for taking autonomous trucks forward.

Im Hamburger Hafen transportieren autonome Fahrzeuge Container. Foto: HHLA

In the Hamburg container terminal in Altenwerder autonomous vehicles carry containers. Foto: HHLA

As if by magic, Automated Guided Vehicle number 89 moves in the closed area of the container terminal. Among the back and forth of 90 identical vehicles it carries containers from the bridge at the quay wall to the container storage. Completely autonomous and absolutely precise.

If commercial vehicle manufacturers and suppliers could do as they would, the first autonomous trucks and buses would probably take to the road tomorrow. Instead, the industry has to overcome tall hurdles at the authorities so that it can even send its semi-automated vehicles to test drives on public roads under the supervision of a driver. It is therefore still a dream of the future that artificial intelligence, in combination with sensors, cameras and an electronic infrastructure alone, could take control of commercial vehicles. Elsewhere, however, this advanced stage is already a reality in the evolution of automated driving. Production and warehouse logistics in particular is an Eldorado for driverless systems.

Driverless Systems are Gaining Ground in Production and Warehouse Logistics

In such an eldorado Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) number 89 is at home, too. Along the pier it collects one container after the other, provided by a crane. 19.000 transponders with satellite connection are embedded in the driving surface. They are able to guide every single AGV so precisely that they will never get in each other’s way. The AGVs stop at invisible junctions, when other 34-ton shuttles approach. They finally deliver their goods to the interim storage.

BMW also counts on autonomous systems. The car manufacturer uses, for example, route trains at the Dingolfing plant to supply the assembly lines, which navigate in the hall on the basis of laser signals. In the Hamburg container terminal in Altenwerder, the Automated Guided Vehicles find their way between the bridge and the container store with the help of thousands of transponders embedded in the driving surface. Autonomous forklifts are also state of the art. The automotive supplier ZF recently presented a forklift equipped with artificial intelligence at the Hanover Fair, which independently finds the storage location, takes over the goods and transports them to the customer. The common denominator of these driverless systems: they develop their driving skills not out on the road, but in closed areas. The key question, therefore, is whether these autonomous vehicles can provide a blueprint for large trucks and buses despite this restriction?

ZF testet bereits ein Modell für den automatisierten Betriebshof der Zukunft. Foto: ZF In der Lager- und Produktionslogistik sind autonome Gabelstapler im Einsatz. Foto: ZF Das Projekt Auto Truck findet in einer speziellen Automatisierungszone statt. Foto: IVI

Fraunhofer IVI Researches Autonomous Trucks in Automation Zones

At first glance, of course, the leap to the heavy calibers is risky. After all, there are worlds between the systems on a technological level. On the other hand, a spatial restriction can make sense in order to promote the development of autonomous commercial vehicles. The Fraunhofer Institute for Transport and Infrastructure Systems (IVI) is currently pursuing exactly this approach together with several industry partners. The “Auto Truck” research project, which is scheduled to run for three years, is aimed at deploying autonomous trucks in specially set up automation zones. The depot of a forwarding agency is the ideal training camp for this purpose. There, traffic on a smaller scale takes place under conditions similar to public space, with obstacles, steering manoeuvres and driving decisions. However, in this closed zone there is hardly any danger to the life and limb of other road users. On the other hand, the speeds in the depot are comparatively low at 15 to 20 km/h, and unauthorised persons have no access to the site.

Freight Forwarders’ Depots are the Ideal Test Field for Self-Driving Trucks

“Compared to road traffic, the automation zone has the advantage that autonomous vehicles registered there can be used in the near future,” explains Eric Gleitsmann from Fraunhofer IVI, who is involved in the “Auto Truck” project as a research associate. Special attention is paid to the question of how such an area must be equipped in order for a highly automated vehicle to be able to drive on its own. The test vehicle is an electrified Mercedes-Benz Axor from Orten Electric Trucks, which is equipped with components close to series production. The scientists’ technological focus includes positioning and navigation. As Eric Gleitsmann reports, a pure GPS system in complex areas is not sufficient to determine the exact position due to possible shadows. The project partners are therefore working on map systems that allow an inventory of the conditions on the site. Also on the agenda are the safe avoidance of collisions and car-2-infrastructure communication, in which the vehicle communicates with different sensor systems at the depot.

The Truck Manoeuvres Itself and then Docks at the Ramp Automatically

 One scenario in the “Auto Truck” project involves the driver arriving with his truck at the depot of his freight forwarder to pick up a load. He places the vehicle in its place in the automation zone, whereupon the central computer takes over the vehicle into the system. From this moment on, all driving tasks such as starting, manoeuvring and docking at the ramp as well as returning to the original parking position take place in automatic mode. In the research project, the scientists keep the test vehicle on a virtual leash in an online control center for control and monitoring. If a transport task is pending, the system calculates the required routes. It takes into account the geometry of the vehicle, fixed obstacles and the tracks of other autonomous vehicles. The operator transmits the data to the truck at the control station. Once activated by mouse click, the truck sets off on its own.

Der Lkw von Orten Electric-Trucks ist Versuchsträger im Forschungsprojekt. Foto: IVI

The truck from Orten Electric-Trucks is a test vehicle in the research project. Photo: IVI

At the End of 2019, the Autonomous System will be Put into Practice in a Forwarding Agency

For the time being, the “Auto Truck” research project does not extend beyond the boundaries of a depot. According to the Fraunhofer scientists, however, the technologies used, such as control algorithms, obstacle detection, location and communication between trucks and infrastructure, should be transferable to road traffic in the medium term. The exemplary test will follow at the end of the project in autumn 2019, when the model of the automated depot will go into reference operation at the project partner Emons Spedition in Dresden.

As if by magic, the Automated Guided Vehicles in Altenwerder incessantly carry containers 24 hours a day throughout the terminal. Number 89 doesn’t make an exception.

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