Volvo has started its first commercial autonomous truck service, transporting limestone from an open pit in Norway to a port three miles away.
Volvo is running the service for Brønnøy Kalk, a Norwegian calcium carbonate producer, using six self-driving trucks to ferry the limestone between pit and port through a network of tunnels.
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Tests started in 2018, and the autonomous service will become fully operational by the end of 2019. Volvo is also working on autonomous driving projects in the mining, sugar cane harvesting, and refuse collection industries.
The Swedish automotive company says the limestone contract "represents an exciting first for Volvo Trucks." For Brønnøy Kalk, the company is expected to benefit by paying for Volvo's service instead of buying a fleet of autonomous trucks on its own.
With the mining company paying for the deliveries, rather than the vehicles, it is in Volvo's interest to operate a service which is safe and reliable, but also efficient and timely. The more limestone the trucks transport, the more valuable the service becomes and the more incentive Volvo has to build on this technology.
The trucks will navigate along a preset route and away from public roads, so there is very little chance for something to go wrong.
But, despite this relative simplicity, the project is key for the autonomous haulage industry — not least because the lack of complex public roads, pedestrians and other drivers means the system is simpler to implement and operate, quickly giving Volvo the real-world data it needs to further improve the technology.
Raymond Langfjord, managing director of the mine, said: "This is an important step for us. The competition in the industry is tough. We are continuously looking to increase our efficiency and productivity long-term, and we have a clear vision of taking advantage of new opportunities in technology and digital solutions."
Caterpillar, the construction equipment company known as CAT, also produces autonomous mining vehicles, including self-driving trucks used to transport raw material out of open mines.
In September this year, Volvo showed off a concept for what it thinks the future of autonomous trucks could look like. In June, it claimed that, by 2021, its road cars will allow their occupants to "eat, sleep...do whatever" while on the highway, thanks to an upcoming version of the company's Highway Pilot self-driving system.
Despite the recent departure of Uber, the autonomous truck industry is as hotly contested as the driverless car space. Companies like Waymo, Embark, Mercedes, Tesla and Volvo are all working to create self-driving haulage vehicles.
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