As the company’s recent Tech Show demonstrated, the emerging technologies department at Volvo Construction Equipment is taking the long view. The very long view…
In our modern, hectic lives it’s not always easy to work out what is going to happen tomorrow, let alone a generation from now. But that is precisely the task given to the team of 20 engineers in the technology department at Volvo Construction Equipment. “It is our job to look as many as 30 years into the future and produce a roadmap of the technologies that are embryonic today – but which could make a difference in the future,” says Jenny Elfsberg, the department’s director.
For a company like Volvo with innovation at its core, the latest technology is not just nice to have, it is essential to keep ahead of the competition. But which technologies to pursue? “Take solar energy or hydrogen fuel cells, for example,” says Elfsberg. “Today they are not very efficient, and something radical has to happen for them to replace the traditional combustion engine as the primary power source of a machine. But just because they can’t replace them today – or even a decade from now – doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting technologies. There is every reason to suggest that solar and fuel cells will make that developmental leap – and so we should be prepared.”
Okay, so what do Elfsberg and her team think will be the hot technologies decades from now?
Volvo is working with several universities, like Örebro University in Sweden and the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany, to develop construction equipment that does not require an operator to be onboard. At the moment, the project has devised a wheel loader and excavator that can handle simple digging and loading tasks. The software architecture cannot yet cope with a dynamically changing situation – but the progress made has been exciting. This technology may be decades away from production but has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of machine usage. It may also have advantages in hazardous environments.
The next stage of the project will be to improve the behaviour-based control network to allow complex tasks to be carried out in a permanently changing environment. The hope is that this will eventually lead to an autonomous machine that can reach the equivalent of 70% of a skilled operator’s productivity levels.
“We will still have operators in the cabs in 30 years’ time,” believes Elfsberg. “The entire process is so complicated that you have to feel it – but the future will include a lot more machine autonomy. It will also provide more interesting work for operators, with perhaps the machines being controlled remotely. In the meantime, thinking of operators as part of the system will make us focus on operability, operator support and autonomous functions.”
Hybrid and advanced driveline systems
There are two forms of hybrid (i.e. more than one power source) technologies that will be interesting in the future – hydraulic hybrids and electric hybrids. Traditionally, hydraulics are a bit like the blood supply in our bodies – it flows even when we are at rest. A more intelligent way is to have hydraulic flow only when needed and capture unspent energy via accumulators. This energy is then fed back into the system using smart electronic control, drastically reducing energy loss. Longer term, hydraulics themselves will be faced with more competition from electrical motors and actuators, eliminating leakages and a considerable amount of noise and weight from the system.
Electric hybrids are better known, and with battery technology developing rapidly, it’s not unthinkable that smaller construction machines could be entirely electrically powered. Systems that allow the very largest machines to be powered from the electricity grid will also continue to develop, while in between there is a lot of scope to refine the diesel-electric solution.