Taking trucking to the next level

Volvo Trucks continue to push the boundaries of where technology and trucking meet with their ever-advanced autonomous driving systems and telematics, which have saved fleet managers countless rands in the process.

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One of the stars of Volvo South Africa’s reign in the top two extra heavy manufacturers in South Africa is Theunis Eloff, the Commercial Aftermarket Director for Volvo Trucks Southern Africa. He is an individual focused on delivering transport solutions through customer engagement using a quality-minded approach.

After completing his studies in marketing he joined the automotive environment in 1999. During his 11-year journey with a well-known manufacturer he has seen several recognitions locally and internationally, mainly focused on efficiency and industry best practices. He joined the Volvo group in 2010 seeking more exposure in the logistics and supply chain arenas and focused on imports, exports and materials handling. During this time (2010 – 2015) he achieved great success leading the RMEA (Russia, Middle East, Africa) efficiency groups and was recognised for several best practices within this area of responsibility.

Today he is responsible for Aftermarket and Volvo’s retail network and his biggest ambition is to drive retail excellence through securing uptime to the Volvo customer base and ultimately an overall reduction in the cost of ownership.

This has helped the company improve its position in the Scott Byers report. In the results revealed for quarter three, it is clear that the company is customercentric and so much more than transport providers. Rather they are business enablers with Volvo Trucks taking the top spot in sales, service and parts.

What are improvements in the transport industry that assist greater safety and efficiency in fleets?

Historically, safety on the roads was the sole responsibility of law enforcement. Rules and regulations were enforced through roadblocks and the issuing of fines. We have seen a change in this approach lately. One such example is the RTMS (Road Transport Management System). RTMS is a voluntary self-regulated scheme that encourages transport operators to implement a vehicle management system that preserves road infrastructure, improves road safety and increases the productivity of the logistics value chain.

With margins in the transport industry remaining low, a lot of the focus has shifted into optimising transport operations. This leads to a higher investment rate in vehicles as well as drivers and their training. Younger and more modern vehicles, along with better trained and equipped drivers, are crucial for the improvement of safety on the roads. Well trained drivers operate a vehicle in its optimal range, leading to an increase in the fleet’s efficiency.

What R&D is going into the new technology – there must be a large amount of money going into developments?

We find ourselves in exiting times. There are a lot of developments within our sector. With the impact of global warming becoming more and more visible, along with the depleting availability of fossil fuels, a lot of emphasis is being placed on alternative ways to propel vehicles. Hybrid vehicles, using both diesel and electricity for propulsion, are currently being tested in Europe. With the rapid pace of battery technology development the logical next step will be full electric vehicles. Volvo is also in the process of introducing vehicles that run on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). The new trucks have the same performance, drivability and fuel consumption as the diesel-powered models. These vehicles, however, have CO2 emissions that are 20-100 % lower compared to diesel, depending on choice of gas.

There is a lot of emphasis on self-driving vehicles (autonomous). Vehicles are already operating in mines without any drivers in Europe, and Volvo Trucks will introduce a fully autonomous vehicle in 2018 that will deliver new Volvo cars from the factory in Gothenburg to the harbour. This will be the first fully autonomous truck to operate on public roads.

We are also focusing a lot on uptime development and currently relying on customers to book vehicles into our workshops. There is a project underway, which will enable us to identify faults in the vehicle remotely, diagnose the fault, and call the vehicle in before failure. We are also aiming to take this a step further with remote programming, eliminating the need for the vehicle to visit a workshop for basic programming or even new software updates.

As trucks get more advanced, what mechanical skills are needed to maintain the vehicles?

Diesel engines have been the backbone of commercial vehicles for the past 80 years, and still have a role to play in the near future of commercial vehicles. We do find that technology around diesel engines is improving at a rapid rate. Understanding the basics of diesel engines is fundamental but no longer sufficient. Technicians need to be trained to support technology as well. Modern day vehicles rely on Electronic Control Units (ECU’s) to operate. These Control Units require a higher skill level to maintain and update and there is a lot of focus on a technicians’ abilities to work with and update these electronics. Basic computer literacy is now core for developing a modern day diesel technician. Vehicle diagnostics has also changed from trial and error to computer-based diagnostics.

As vehicle technology evolves, so do the tools to maintain them. Ensuring that workshops have all the state-of-the-art tools and that the technicians are trained in how to use them is of upmost importance these days.

New vehicle technology also requires additional competencies. Technicians have to be trained in the new safety packages available on our vehicles, as well as the calibration and maintenance of them.

Alternative fuels as well as full electric vehicles will bring new exciting challenge to our workshops. Gone will be the days of diesel technicians (mechanics) or auto-electricians (sparkies). Technical staff will need to adapt and be up-skilled as ‘commercial vehicle specialists’ and be able to service, maintain and repair any commercial vehicle irrespective of what is powering it.

As technology develops, how far are we away from autonomous truck driving and what are the challenges facing Africa?

Hopefully not far away! Up to 90% of road accidents are caused at least in part by human error. This intuitive claim is a fine place to start discussions about the safety potential of vehicle automation. We do, however, face a few realities that will limit the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Poor infrastructure is one of the main reasons. Not only are the road conditions not up to standard, but other factors can play a role as well.

Autonomous vehicles will rely on lane markings as well as road signs for guidance. If these are not up to standard or even in place, it will hugely limit the type of autonomous vehicle we will be able to accommodate on our roads. We already have vehicles that are on autonomous levels 1 & 2 (self braking, lane keeping, automatic distance keeping and accelerating), but we are limited to these levels with current infrastructure. We should still, however, keep pushing the envelope. A recent study showed that road accidents globally could be reduced by as much as 80% before 2040 with the effective introduction of vehicle autonomy.

Volvo has introduced a number of revolutionary and lifesaving technologies over the years. Here are a few:

1959 – Seatbelt
1960 – Safety cab
1969 – Accident research team
1996 – Front underrun protection system
2005 – Alcolock
2008 – Driver alert support
2012 – Collision warning with emergency brake
There is a lot of ongoing effort to add autonomous vehicles to the above list.

What has been the feedback from clients that have bought trucks with all the added extras?

We are receiving a lot of positive and exciting feedback. We have customers that have experienced first-hand the advantages of some of these features. A lot of them are now more comfortable when meeting with their insurance brokers as the risk of vehicle accidents has decreased with these new features. We have even seen customers changing their procurement policies, where from now onwards only vehicles with the full safety package will be procured. The same rules will apply to other operators that would wish to operate as a sublet for these companies.

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