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Volvo Tech Makes Trucks Smart Enough to Not Run You Over

A new predictive sensor system should help Volvo truck autonomously avoid flattening bicyclists and pedestrians

2 min read
Volvo Tech Makes Trucks Smart Enough to Not Run You Over
Photo: Volvo Trucks

As much as we’re looking forward to cars with autonomous features, adding autonomy to trucks is at least as valuable, if not more valuable, considering how much time trucks (and the humans in charge of them) spend on the roads.

Volvo, which has been experimenting with autonomous vehicles for quite a while, has a goal of making its trucks (and cars) accident free, and it’s working on a project that combines cameras, radars, and other sensors to create a predictive 360 degree view of things that Volvos should probably try and avoid running into.

This sort of predictive tracking is something that Google uses on its autonomous cars as well, and it’s especially important for tracking people (as opposed to other vehicles), since neither pedestrians nor bicyclists can be reliably expected to follow rules around roads, whether those rules are legal ones or just basic common sense. And while prediction is all well and good, a system that makes decisions based on what it thinks a person on a bike is likely to do also must be prepared to react to that person doing something incredibly idiotic. 

The key to the safety here isn’t really the driver alert aspect: it’s the fact that the truck can take over completely and engage the brakes or steering when necessary. Alterting the driver is fine, but taking the human out of the loop completely is much more effective. Humans really need to start accepting the fact that most of us are terrible drivers, and that the only reason we do as well as we do is that most of the time we don’t really have to pay attention because nothing unexpected happens. Computers, though, pay attention all the time, and never get sleepy or bored or angry or distracted, which is why we want to them to, at the very least, be watching our backs (and sides and fronts) whenever possible.

Volvo says that this system will be ready for the market in “five to ten years time,” which is usually code for “we have no freakin’ idea.” This seems awfully pessimistic, but it’s partly because a truck’s weight (and often size) can vary widely over the course of a day, which makes autonomous avoidance maneuvers more difficult to reliably plan. However, since Volvo says that all of the components are in place and that it’s just a matter of testing, I’d be willing to guess that we’ll be seeing tech like this starting to become available in 3-5 years at the most.

[ Volvo Trucks Press Release ]

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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