“IdenT” research project: focus on autonomous driving

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Text: Petra Wurm
Photos: BPW

Trucks with a total weight of 40 tons are part of the normal road scene. But without a driver? Especially in the commercial vehicle sector, autonomous driving offers enormous potential, but also special risks. Although trailers have a strong influence on the driving dynamics and reliability of semitrailers, they have so far received little attention when it comes to autonomous driving. The “IdenT” research project is changing this.

How can intelligent trailers contribute to trucks being autonomous and at the same time safe and economical on the road? BPW Bergische Achsen and seven top-class partners from research and practice have been working on this question since February 2020 in the project “IdenT – Identification of dynamically and safety-relevant trailer states for automated trucks”. The project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy with a total volume of 4.7 million euros, is scheduled to run for three years and is intended to make an important contribution to exploiting the potential of automated trucks.

Promote autonomous driving

Until now, the focus of autonomous driving has generally been on the tractor unit, with little attention paid to the trailer. For some time now, the experts at BPW have been thinking about how to close this gap and thus actively shape developments. “Of course, we always ask ourselves what our products will have to achieve at some point when there is no longer a driver sitting in the driver’s cab”, says Dr Jan-Philipp Kobler, pre-developer of mechatronics, explaining BPW’s motivation. Together with colleagues from the Mechatronics and Simulation & Testing departments, he is in charge of this ambitious project for the commercial vehicle supplier. Working in close cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability and the Institute for Mechatronic Systems at the University of Hanover, BPW succeeded in attracting other strong partners from science and industry to submit a funding application as a consortium. After a complex application procedure lasting almost two years, the research approach and requirements were confirmed and the application was approved.

»Of course, we always ask ourselves the question: What must our products achieve when there is no driver in the cab?«

Dr Jan-Philipp Kobler

The research project is now working intensively on making trailers fit for the transport world of the future. “We want to make it possible for them to be moved by an autonomous tractor unit. Linked to this is the question: What of all the things the driver does today could be done by the trailer in the future? And also: What must the trailer do that the truck cannot do for technical reasons?”

Intelligent trailer sensor technology is needed to maximise safety and efficiency when driving autonomously. The aim of the project is therefore to set up and test an IdenT system: By allowing the trailer to determine and provide reliable information, the project team wants to support autonomous driving of the tractor unit. In concrete terms, the project will focus on information from four areas:

• on factors relevant to vehicle dynamics (weight and load distribution, axle loads etc.)
• on the states and remaining lifetimes of function and safety-relevant components
• from the rear area monitoring
• on the condition of the road

The entire IdenT project team – here is a photo from the preparation phase – meets personally every six months if possible. Concrete tasks are solved in cross-partner working groups.
The first substantive objective is that the trailer should provide information relevant to driving dynamics for the tractor unit. How heavy it is at the moment, where the centre of gravity of the load lies, how the axle loads are distributed: All these data are not yet available today – but they are relevant when it comes to making autonomous driving safer. “If the tractor unit has to carry out an autonomous emergency braking maneuver, this information is of great importance, because the trailer is much heavier than the tractor unit and thus ultimately determines where the train will go in an emergency,” Dr. Kobler explains the intention. “The analysis of this data also provides indications of slipping loads, and thus makes an important contribution to preventing transport damage and increasing the safety of autonomous freight transport”.

The second point is aimed at predictive maintenance. Today the driver checks the condition of the trailer, in future the trailer itself will have to do this – an important basic requirement without which the autonomous driving of articulated trucks will not be possible. Damage to tyres, brakes, chassis, lighting, body and load must be detected reliably and in good time in order to avoid unplanned breakdowns and endangering other road users. Ideally, the trailer should be able to provide information about wearing parts and all function and safety-relevant components. This would make it possible to optimally plan workshop stops and thus minimise downtime and associated costs. One example is the BPW BrakePadMonitor – a sensor that measures wear on the brake pad and reports to the vehicle operator via a telematics link as soon as a threshold value is exceeded.

Further objectives of the project are rear area monitoring, which is essential for safe autonomous lane changes during overtaking manoeuvres, for example, and the determination and provision of information on road conditions, which significantly determines the load on the chassis components.

BPW not only contributes know-how to the project, but also a test vehicle. The test trailer is equipped with intelligent sensor technology: It records valuable data and determines driving dynamic conditions while driving on a computing unit in the trailer.

A project with clear practical relevance

The collected data is to be used specifically with the IdenT system to be developed: Sensor data will be evaluated and processed in real time by a mathematical model of truck and trailer – i.e. a digital twin. Information collected online during the journey is also sent via a cloud infrastructure to an offline twin, which uses more detailed vehicle models to calculate component wear, for example, and reports this back to the online twin. “In the project, we act as a system integrator and interface to the end users of the IdenT system,” says Dr Kobler, explaining BPW’s contribution. “What is important to us is a customer-centred development that always has the requirements of the vehicle manufacturers and the vehicle operators in mind and gradually leads them to series production readiness”. A test vehicle provided by BPW is already in use: The trailer is used to test the system in real driving conditions and provides valuable data and findings.

From science fiction to reality

Articulated trucks which operate around the clock without a driver and thus without prescribed driving times. Tractors that know when wear components need to be replaced – and can independently plan and implement workshop visits. No question: The total costs of ownership of a vehicle can be significantly influenced with the help of increasing automation and innovative technology such as sensor systems or telematics; the savings potential is enormous. But how long will it take until trucks can drive autonomously? “In closed environments away from the highway code, for example in depots, this will be possible relatively quickly,” says Dr Jan-Philipp Kobler. “However, it could well be another 20 years before trucks and trailers are on the road completely without drivers. In my estimation, the role of the driver will change more and more during the transition phase – towards someone who sits at the front, can devote himself to other tasks and only takes control in exceptional cases, similar to the way pilots in aircraft operate today. “It will be decisive for the dynamics of this development up to completely autonomous driving that safety is guaranteed and that a clear added value is recognizable for vehicle operators. With the IdenT research project, BPW and its consortium partners are making an important contribution to actively driving forward the transformation of transport with innovative solutions.

Composition of the project consortium

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