Kamaz’s Push-me-Pull-you AV Truck Starts Testing

Russian truck maker Kamaz claims to have begun physical testing of an autonomous cabless concept truck.

The BEV dubbed Chelnok, meaning shuttle, targets short-range transportation of goods in closed areas such as logistic hubs, port terminals or large manufacturing sites. Most unusually, it features symmetrical front and rear ends and is capable to move in both directions.

Teaser shots released in February reveal that each vehicle’s end features both headlights and taillights while the fascia is shaped to be naturally interpreted by human mind as front or rear, depending on the direction of movement. Also, for this purpose, the vehicle is equipped with steering mechanisms and electric motors on both axes. The general idea is that a vehicle that never has to do a U-turn allows for more efficient logistic schemes.

According to Kamaz, by getting rid of the cabin, the cost of a mass production truck can be downsized by up to 20%. It also allows for a more compact design with the whole vehicle’s length used as a cargo bed. Thanks to absence of protruding parts, it can be approached from all the four horizontal directions for loading.

Different ways to go cabless

A lack of a cabin is a relatively new idea so most of the automakers have not yet presented their visions of it. Three physical-world projects are known to be under way and each one presents a different paradigm.

Volvo Vera rolled out in 2018 targeted the same market as Chelnok but on the chassis level, it was a classical hauler. Most important, it was a market-ready solution.

Scania sees potential for cabless vehicles in the mining and construction sectors. Its concept truck AXL presented in September, 2019, was a conventional four-axis ICE dump truck powered by renewable biofuels with a bulky ‘intelligent front module’ replacing the cabin.

Chelnok, an open cargo platform 25 feet in length and with a maximum load of 10 metric tons, is now probably the most radical concept so far.

Will it stay symmetrical?

Kamaz’s press service declined to comment on the theme but we know from a TU-Automotive contact in the truck maker’s research and development facility that the official presentation of the concept truck is due June, 2020.

Will the exotic truck ever reach mass production and find good uptake among Kamaz’s conservative customers? “We think that Chelnok is unlikely to reach mass production anytime soon but it is a serious step to form the future market,” said Artur Muradyan, general director at Traft. “The concept might be practically interesting if a task of connecting driverless vehicles fleet with each other and the infrastructure is solved as well as the issue of integration with non-automatized facilities. Upon that condition, use of such vehicles can indeed improve the overall traffic.”

Nikolay Lobanov, founder of consultancy firm Lobanov-Logist, said: “The very reason why the government established the state corporation Rostec, the main shareholder of Kamaz, was to try and seek new opportunities for technological innovations, to collect even the most exotic ideas, to implement new designs in small-scale production and test them in practical pilots to see if there is demand from the market to justify commercialization. I think that Chelnok is a good illustration here. Even an unconventional design such as a cabless electric heavy-duty vehicle can gain practical interest today, provided it is not used on public roads. I don’t rule out a possible situation that in the nearest future, Rostec and Kamaz will negotiate with some larger companies with governmental ownership, logistics hubs, or port terminals on a pilot to test a fleet of five to 10 vehicles, in order to improve the technology and analyze its practical efficiency.”

Another question is if the bi-directional design can be implemented in the existing logistic schemes. “In theory, we see an opportunity for the vehicle operation in the existing transport schemes that might result in a more efficient and smooth circulation of cargo traffic in ports and hubs,” said Muradyan.

Lobanov expressed doubts that the vehicle’s symmetry could be efficiently applied in the today’s transport systems: “To benefit from the feature, the warehousing infrastructure and technologies have to be re-engineered too deeply for the changes to be financially justified. Volvo achieved a comparable result but with a more universal approach.”

Earlier in February this year, a news came out that Kamaz is preparing a merger with another Russian automaker Sollers Auto to jointly operate on the market and develop new technologies. “Joining efforts on innovations is a common practice for the automotive industry,” said Eduard Cherkin, director and head of automotive at Boston Consulting Group CIS. “Currently none of the Russian auto makers is able to independently sustain the necessary pace of innovation.”

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