Jenny Elfsberg is happy. As Volvo Construction Equipment’s director of emerging technologies, she is in what she describes as a “luxury position”, the primary purpose of which is to ensure the company innovates.
But luxury on its own doesn’t automatically lead to career happiness: for that, job satisfaction is key. Elfsberg gets hers from seeing her designs, ideas and theories (and those of her 20-strong team of research engineers) being turned into prototype machines for real-world testing.
The need for extensive testing is something Elfsberg is passionate about. She believes it is not just a way of proving designs, but an integral part of the design process itself. Battery performance in electric machines, for example, is never quite the same on paper as it is in practice… “Batteries are still something we learn by doing,” she says. “I’d like everyone to understand that you can’t sit behind your computer and believe you have all the answers, because it’s not until you have something up and running that you understand what works.
Calculations of optimum battery size and charging schemes don’t come from super-smart brains in a closed office. They come from testing.” Sometimes that testing happens in closed environments, as with Volvo’s electric autonomous HX1 hauler (see iVT, November 2016, p40, for a full case study), but on other occasions, other arms of the Volvo Group act, unwittingly perhaps, as testing grounds for industrial vehicles.
“Electric buses have been tremendously successful and the quality issues have been very few. It’s been very good… my bus colleagues would maybe not like me to say this of course, but their vehicles have been a good testing ground for us. We can take their battery technology and inherit it, so we are happy to be part of a big group. But we are not overdoing it either; if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.”
Despite the great strides being made toward electrification, debate rages (including in the pages of this issue) as to whether fully electric machines will ever be feasible.
“My opinion is with the rapid development going on right now with battery solutions, I have no concerns whatsoever they will be business-viable,” says Elfsberg.
That prediction is not without its caveats, however. “If you have
a larger machine, you won’t be able to rely only on batteries in the near future,” says Elfsberg. “But you can make life a lot easier for the diesel engine and have electric energy storage, or at least hydraulic energy storage (in a hydraulic accumulator) and downsize the engine and make it work in its sweet spot.”
But in a future all-electric world, could we reach a point where excessive drain on electrical grids from vehicles could cause power supply problems? “You have to consider the local grid if you’re going to install a lot of electric machines that are charging from the grid,” admits Elfsberg. “Either you need a scheme on how you’re going to spread the charging, or you need a local storage like Tesla’s large stationary batteries. We don’t want to make the grid unstable. Electric energy is so important to every industry and every human on the planet – we all need to get the water heated for our showers!
“I have no doubt whatsoever,” she continues, “that we will have enough electric energy for the future, once we start to invest in renewables. We have been helping the fossil fuel energy to stay alive for many, many years, so now why would we not help solar or wind or water?”
Elfsberg does have some ideas for managing the transition, which she admits, even in the West, will involve a pain barrier. “In the near term, the transition might be painful and a construction site might need to have a generator available that is actually powered by a diesel engine. You could, of course, use something renewable like synthetic diesel, but you still have a combustion engine on the site. That might be needed in the short term.
“If you look at the world, we also have countries where the grid
is not so well developed. If we want to provide electric machines, a generator could actually be the bridge, so we do not need to develop complex conventional machines… maybe it won’t be as clean as the energy we dream of, but we need to respect the world we’re in.”
The Volvo brand is synonymous with industry-leading safety innovation. This carries through into its construction business and is something that Elfsberg and her team are more focused on than ever. “Lately we’ve had several customers saying, ‘We want to tell our employees that when they work for us they are safe.’ So we explore a lot of safety solutions.”
One new piece of technology that Elfsberg singles out as a key part of Volvo CE’s safety systems is Smart View. This gives operators an in-cab bird’s-eye view of the vehicle, so they can see all around at all times.
So if another worker is in the vehicle’s blind spot, appropriate action can be taken.
Such safety systems could be described as ‘semi-autonomous’, however Elfsberg realizes that giving too much power to machines can be complicated. “If you let it take over entirely, you have to overcome a trust issue between the human and the machine. It’s a very fun and interesting area of technology to explore, because once you put it in the hands of workers, it gets a lot more complicated than what you can test in the lab environment.”
The car industry is already making great strides toward fully autonomous driving. Volvo Cars is beginning its high-profile Drive Me project this year, where 1,000 members of the public will be recruited to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in Gothenburg, Sweden. But while on the surface a construction site may seem a lot simpler to comprehend than a busy road, Elfsberg believes some of the problems must be overcome to achieve full autonomy are actually more difficult than they are for cars.
“Everyone in our industry wants to inherit whatever is done in cars,” she says. “But when you take an autonomous solution created for the road, you realize it doesn’t do the job well enough on a construction site – it’s not a predictable enough environment.
“I love it when a car detects a car in front. With most of these solutions, the car doesn’t know if it’s a moose running into the road or a rock that’s rolled there. It will always translate it as a car. But for a wheel loader operating in a quarry, it is quite different. It needs to be able to detect gravel piles, that it should work in and haulers it must get very close to, but not hit. The signal shouldn’t be the same. So it needs to warn you: don’t run into that one, but do go into that one.”
It’s a point that neatly sums up the difference between vehicles that are simply created for getting from A to B and vehicles that are for physical labor, and must operate almost as bionic extensions of the human body. “On the road, all vehicles need to do is avoid each other,” says Elfsberg. “Our machines need to collaborate and work together.”