Together with Intel, Rolls-Royce is developing a robotic ship that is scheduled to set sail in six years.
Together with Intel, Rolls-Royce is developing a robotic ship that is scheduled to set sail in six years.
( Source: Rolls-Royce)

Automation Autonomous mobility beyond the automobile

Author / Editor: Mario Hommen / Jochen Schwab

The autonomous car is on everyone's lips, but self-driving technology will penetrate pretty much all areas of mobility. There are consequences to this trend: The profession of vehicle driver will become a thing of the past. Even the bicycle is not safe from automation. Here’s an overview.

Car manufacturers never tire of making us want and believe in the future of autonomous cars. Cameras, lidar, radar and electronic superbrains with artificial intelligence are to herald a new era of mobility. The car is the main focus of attention, but the replacement of the driver is also likely to find its way into many other areas of mobility. In the future, ships, trains, airplanes and bicycles will move independently and without people.

The commercial vehicle industry makes the start

Soon, commercial vehicles could increasingly provide driverless services in some special areas of application. Container terminals, mines or - under certain conditions - agriculture offer interesting areas of application for driverless vehicles. In a pilot project at the end of 2017, Mercedes demonstrated how driverless snowplows can be used at airports. However, these were not (yet) autonomous vehicles. Rather, the snow ploughs are steered by a lead truck with a driver, which is followed in large numbers by other snowplow without drivers. The vehicles are equipped with high-precision GPS systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The advantage: The number of permanent plow drivers at airports during the winter months could be significantly reduced with the help of automated snowplows, which would above all result in cost savings.

A further field of application for the future is automated agricultural machinery. Modern tractors are already controlled by GPS-based automatic steering systems, however, in the future they will be able to do their work without a driver. The manufacturer Case IHA presented a driverless tractor concept vehicle, for example; on a computer or tablet, the farmer can monitor his work from a distance and even access the built-in camera to take a look at the surroundings. Fendt, the manufacturer of agricultural machinery, is working on an electric field robot to sow maize. The small units working in a swarm will use satellite navigation to sow very precisely and even under adverse conditions. The transport industry is also likely to be revolutionized in a few years' time using self-driving vehicles.

The Swedish start-up Einride with a three-axle T-Pod and T-Log electric truck, for example, has made a promising advance towards autonomous transport logistics. The seven-meter-long prototypes do without a driver's cab, which is intended to reduce production costs and create more space for loads. Instead, the electrically powered trucks are equipped for fully autonomous driving thanks to the platform Drive for self-driving functions from the tech company and chip manufacturer Nvidia. The sensor system, consisting of cameras, lidar and radar, will allow the truck to perceive the surrounding environment in 360 degrees without gaps. Moreover, the silent truck can be remotely controlled from a control center. The truck driver is sitting, if at all, in an office.

For the time being, however, only overland routes with low traffic volumes can be considered as operational areas. For 2018, the supermarket chain Lidl has announced its intention to use trucks from Einride in a pilot project in Sweden. According to Einride, the T-Log, a transporter of tree trunks, could drive autonomously on forest tracks as early as 2020.

Last mile transport

Apart from large transporters for cross-country journeys, in the near future miniature vehicles in the cities are also likely to take on transport tasks autonomously, especially for the “last mile”. As early as 2017, the Domino's pizza delivery service in Amsterdam and Hamburg started test runs with three-axis delivery robots. A study conducted by the automotive supplier ZF and the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) predicts great potential in this area. Uwe Clausen, director of the IML, expects that in 2030 delivery robots weighing up to ten kilograms will be commonplace on urban sidewalks.

Autonomous cargo ships

The transport of goods on the world's oceans could also do without the use of people in the near future and thus turn the entire shipping industry upside down. In the summer of 2018, a sailing boat that autonomously crossed the Atlantic demonstrated that ghost ships can also function over long distances. The two meter long and 60 kilogram heavy SB Met of the Norwegian company Offshore Sensing AS took about two and a half months for this trip.

That sounds like a small start, but experts expect large container ships to cruise the seas without crews before 2030. Intel and Rolls-Royce, for example, have been working together on the development of corresponding technology solutions for about two years. German shipbuilders have not yet presented any such prototypes, but the German government believes in the future of this technology and wants to identify areas in which autonomous ships can be tested.

Longest robot in the world: The autonomous freight train

Autonomous driving is also a topic for railway transports. However, not in the future, but already in the present. In some major European cities, light rail vehicles without drivers have been in regular service for years. In Nuremberg, the autonomous U3-line was already put into service in 2008. However, test projects are also planned to advance this topic in long-distance passenger and freight transport soon.

The train manufacturer Alstom and Rotterdam Rail Feeding intend to deploy semi-autonomous freight trains on a 100-kilometer test track in Holland this year. The French rail network SNCF has announced the first test operation of autonomous trains for 2023. In 2025 they want to enter industrial production.

Autonomous flying cars and driverless motorcycles

Flying is also to become more autonomous. The pioneers in this field are likely to be the so-called air taxis, which are being developed by several dozen companies worldwide. Giant drones, such as those built by the German company Volocopter, could, for example, shuttle passengers from high-rise roofs in city centers past traffic jams to the airport. Such a mini-flyer could then do without a pilot. But experts also see a huge potential in larger passenger planes. Technically, the prerequisites are probably already fulfilled today. The industry giant Boeing announced that in the near future a small test aircraft without pilots will take off.

There are vehicle segments that seem to be an absurd choice for autonomous driving. However, meanwhile even motorcycles can be “riderless”. Since 2016, BMW has been testing an autonomous R 1200 GS at its test site in Miramas, France. In fact, the travel Enduro can find its way all by itself. However, BMW does not want to explore any market opportunities for automated motorcycles. Rather, the test vehicle is to collect insights into driving dynamics. These data will help develop assistance systems that make motorcycling safer. At least on motorcycles the rider will remain to be in the center of the action.

Autonomous bikes to share

One could joke that soon bicycles might be riding autonomously as well. Surprisingly, researchers at the University of Magdeburg are quite serious about this seemingly absurd idea. They have recently developed a three-wheeled, technically advanced e-bike that can be ordered via the app of a bike sharing system and arrives at the entrance of a supermarket, for example. Apart from the possibility of having hired bicycles come to the desired locations, the self-drive technology also enables better management of a fleet of hired bicycles. The piles of rented bicycles that are a nuisance in many German cities could then be a thing of the past. The researchers plan to set up a test fleet in Magdeburg as early as 2019. Two years later, the technology could be ready for series production.

This article was first published in German by

* Original by Benjamin Kirchbeck, Translation by Alexander Stark