Volvo unit's autonomous truck goes the distance in test as Hokkaido faces driver shortage

SHARI, HOKKAIDO – The Japanese unit of Sweden’s AB Volvo demonstrated for journalists on Thursday a highly autonomous truck at a sugar factory in Hokkaido, where it moved for about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) without the involvement of a human driver. UD Trucks Corp. said the test, which began in early August, is the first level 4 experiment using a large truck in Japan. A level 4 vehicle — a notch below complete autonomy — can perform all driving tasks without a driver, even in emergencies, in designated areas and routes.

The truck maker has teamed up with Nippon Express Co., one of the country’s major logistics firms, and the Hokuren Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives to conduct the test as part of efforts to address a severe driver shortage in the graying country. At the test site, the autonomous truck ran the distance, including about 200 meters on a public road around the factory, at a speed of 20 kph (12 mph). The heavy duty truck smoothly entered the factory site from the public road and went to a sugar beet storage site before arriving at the factory where the material is processed.

A driver was aboard to ensure safety, but he kept his hands off the wheel during the demonstration. “We’d like to launch commercial operations (of level 4 vehicles) in a confined area as early as next year,” UD Trucks President Takamitsu Sakamaki said at a news conference. The test is also aimed at improving efficiency in farm product logistics in Hokkaido.

“I’m afraid we’ll face severe driver shortages in the near future.

I hope the autonomous driving technology will soon be realized to ensure a stable supply of farm products,” Hokuren Chairman Kazuyuki Uchida told reporters.

Japan will see a shortage of 240,000 truck drivers by 2027 due to the country’s rapidly graying population, according to Nippon Express.

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