29 Sep 2023
In Ulm, MAN and its partners have developed and trialled the use of self-driving trucks in a container terminal. The technology works.
With the push of a big red button, the project team at Deutsche Bahn’s container handling facilities for combined road-rail transport in Dornstadt near Ulm launches the future. Members of the public witness for the first time how the apple-green MAN TGX 18.510 drives off autonomously from its parking position, picks up a container in the DB IS container depot, crosses the roundabout between the container depot and the terminal and unerringly approaches grid 26 in the DUSS rail loading terminal. The crane is already waiting there to accept the container.
The amazing thing is that all the truck’s actions are carried out automatically – from checking in with the dispatcher to the order request at the crane to loading and unloading. For this purpose, interfaces were created between all parties, and the entire mission planning is fully digitalised. Even the journey itself works without human intervention – GPS data and comprehensive sensor technology enable the truck to drive autonomously between the DB IS depot and the DUSS terminal. The safety driver at the steering wheel is only there in a supervisory capacity and for assurance during the test journeys.
The truck itself is a standard MAN TGX 18.510 semi-trailer, but it looks somewhat strange with its two Hesai LiDAR systems, which sit at the height of the lower edge of the windscreen and are responsible for detecting objects. They share the work with four other LiDAR systems, six radars and nine cameras. The entire system is redundant so that if one system fails, another can take over.
The self-driving MAN truck is the star of the Autonomous Innovation in Terminal Operations project, known as ANITA. The research and practical project offers a glimpse into the eco-friendly fusion of road and rail freight transport of the future. Following the three-year project and the final six-month practical test in the ongoing operation of the container handling terminal, MAN’s Chief Development Officer Dr Frederik Zohm is pleased: “We have achieved our project goals.” And Ernst Stöckl-Pukall, head of Digitalisation Industry 4.0 at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action adds: “The beginning of the project was challenging due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but now everyone is thrilled with the result.”
Implementing the ambitious project was no small feat. The team consisting of MAN Truck & Bus SE (self-driving trucks), Deutsche Bahn AG (logistics, container management, test environment), Fresenius University of Applied Sciences (system analysis, networking) and Götting KG (technology consulting for object location and environment detection) broke new ground with the complete integration of a self-driving truck into all processes of an ongoing container handling operation.
The project goals were ambitious: The truck, christened Newton, was to drive smoothly and autonomously in the real environment of the container handling facilities at Dornstadt near Ulm, which handles 300 to 400 transshipments per day, and relieve the driver of all tasks from order acceptance to communicating with dispatchers and forklift drivers to loading and locking the container fully automatically – while always keeping an eye on its surroundings in real time, paying attention to unforeseen events or pedestrians and reliably detecting obstacles. What made it all the more remarkable was that the test drives took place during ongoing container handling operations, so the truck had to adapt to and not interfere with the complex processes already taking place on the site from the very beginning.
In order for ANITA to deliver transferable and scalable results for self-driving trucks to be integrated into logistics hubs’ processes in the future and to enable transportation by driverless truck between logistics hubs, there were other hurdles far beyond driverless driving to overcome. In addition to safe obstacle detection with LiDAR, radars and nine cameras, all communication also had to be digitalised.
For ANITA, analogue processes that would otherwise be handled by the driver were all analysed and converted into a digital set of rules, which formed the basis for the digital communication interfaces. It was not without its pitfalls: “We have a communication-intensive multi-agent system here with different parties, including truck drivers, crane and forklift operators, who use different forms of communication such as speech or gestures,” explained Prof Dr Christian T. Haas from Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, who was responsible for the complex system analysis. “To automate this, we had to marry different systems together so that machines and databases could talk to each other.” The end result was fully digitalised mission planning.
In addition to increased safety in container handling, ANITA promises above all more efficiency. The system operates 24 hours a day and can carry out missions while the driver takes his rest breaks. “This means greater flexibility, especially in view of the growing driver shortage,” explains Dr Zohm. “ANITA is an important foundation for MAN to put self-driving trucks on the road as series solutions for transportation between logistics hubs such as Ulm from 2030. Concrete logistics applications and customer benefits are therefore the focus for us in all automation projects right from the start.”
Project partner DB also sees great potential for ANITA: “Combined road-rail transport will continue to grow in the coming years and play an important role in the shift to environmentally friendly rail,” explains Dr Martina Niemann, Member of the Management Board of DB Cargo for Finance, Controlling and Supply Management. It makes sense and results in fewer CO2 emissions to use trucks primarily for short-haul distribution, and rail for long-haul. “To achieve this, the complex processes in the terminals must be made more efficient and be accelerated. This can only be achieved if we further automate and digitalise logistics processes. Today ANITA impressively demonstrated what the future can look like in the terminals,” says Niemann. And the use of self-driving trucks in particular offers great potential, as the project has made clear: up to 40 per cent efficiency gains are possible in the handling process.
And where do we go from here? The project partners agree that scaling up is the next big task. With ANITA, a new, promising basic standard has been developed, and the technical description and practical experience are available. “We have created added value with ANITA by putting many small building blocks together. This is a big step for the future use of self-driving trucks,” Dr Zohm sums up. Many issues still need to be solved for this to happen – but what the future may look like could already be glimpsed at the container terminal in Dornstadt near Ulm at the end of September.
Text: Ralf Kund