26 Oct 2023
At the end of October, an interim conclusion was drawn in the MAN Truck Forum for the ATLAS-L4 sponsorship project. Key milestones have been reached. Next comes the practical testing in 2024.
The driverless truck is gradually edging closer. That was the impressive message from the interim presentation of the ATLAS-L4 project in the MAN Truck Forum. “My heart is beating faster because this is a glimpse of the future. ATLAS-L4 will transform logistics,” said Dr Frederik Zohm, board member for research and development at MAN Truck & Bus, in his welcome speech.
Since January 2022, the twelve project partners MAN Truck & Bus, Knorr-Bremse, Leoni, Bosch, Fernride, BTC Embedded Systems, Fraunhofer AISEC, Technical University of Munich, Technical University of Braunschweig, TÜV SÜD, Autobahn GmbH and the Würzburger Institut für Verkehrswissenschaften (WIVW) GmbH have been working together to bring autonomous trucks to the streets. The acronym of the ATLAS-L4 research and development project is taken from the German title Automatisierter Transport zwischen Logistikzentren auf Schnellstraßen im Level 4, meaning “Automated Transport between logistics centres on motorways, Level 4”.
The framework for ATLAS-L4 was set out by the legislation on autonomous driving passed in 2021 that essentially allows self-driving vehicles to use specified routes under technical supervision. Despite unforeseeable events such as the war in Ukraine, the project is on schedule. After the first 22 months, the project backed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) has already achieved key milestones, as shown in the presentations by MAN Truck & Bus and their partners.
“With ATLAS-L4, we will soon have the first ever self-driving truck on a motorway in Germany,” predicted Dr Zohm. “We want to help bring about hub-to-hub automation, meaning driverless shuttles between logistics yards, which will bring greater safety, better efficiency and less congestion to our streets. Automation concepts can also help to counter the driver shortage.”
Those attending the event could see the prototype vehicle in the MAN Truck Forum. It was easy to identify with sensors on the roof, front and sides of the driver’s cab, together with the built-in computer inside. In the first stage, it was used as a sensor vehicle to gather data before starting on the development of functions for autonomous driving, including the first test drives on the motorway.
The vehicle has already successfully covered its first few kilometres on MAN’s Munich test track. Key functions and interfaces were scrutinised. For the very first time, the components communicated with each other and the sensors carried out a realistic survey of their environment. The first test drives on the motorway are planned to take place before the end of the year.
“Support for ATLAS-L4 is a milestone. ATLAS-L4 is a trailblazer and can provide the answer to the driver shortage, as well as congestion and accidents. The project can therefore help to increase the appeal of Germany as a place to do business,” said Lennart Korsten from project sponsor TÜV Rheinland Consulting GmbH, promoting the project on behalf of the BMWK.
Key milestones have already been reached. The on-board network, steering and redundant braking system sub-systems – all essential for the safety of the Level 4 architecture – have all been designed and have already been trialled in the first prototypes. The control centre for technical monitoring was successfully launched and the connection to the vehicle installed in September 2023. A web interface shows the vehicle on a map together with all the relevant information, such as speed and automation status. Furthermore, the risk analysis for the vehicle that accompanies the project has already been successfully carried out with the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied and Integrated Security (AISEC). This covers topics such as cyber security and the definition of safety measures.
The project partners presented their work in the foyer of the forum, including the control centre and remote operation simulator, which was a real crowd-pleaser. Sitting in the cockpit and experiencing how the truck could be guided through a narrow building site remotely from a control centre was a glimpse into the workplace of the future, where self-driving trucks will be operated.
The BTC Embedded Systems AG stand showed how risk scenarios are evaluated by changing individual parameters. For example, information on speed or cutting in after overtaking can be varied. The whole thing vividly resembled a computer game and the results showed whether the truck’s software could handle the changes. “Traditional tests are no longer sufficient for self-driving vehicles,” explained Dr Matthias Büker of BTC in his presentation. “Virtual tools mean less human input, lower costs and, above all, scalability.”
The next major milestone is the public traffic premiere. The test vehicle is likely to make its first journey on the German motorway before the end of the year – although a driver will still be on board for safety purposes. “So far, in previous projects we have only travelled at low speeds in enclosed environments such as the Hamburg docks. Now, we’ll be looking at high-speed scenarios at 80 km/h. This is where the real-life behaviour of other road users comes into play,” said Leonie Wulf of MAN Truck & Bus, discussing function development, tooling, testing and validation tasks.
It was clear that all these milestones contribute towards the long-term goals of ATLAS-L4: proof that the use of Level-4 automated and thus driverless vehicles on the motorway is feasible. That is the prerequisite for the future production applications for logistics 4.0 – enabled by the network provided by the strong ATLAS-L4 consortium. The project will run until December 2024. The end result should be a concept for the operation of automated trucks on the motorway that is suited for use in industry.
Text: Anke Kotte