Self-driving commercial vehicles: An entirely new role for the driver seat

Kaiserslautern/Hannover, Germany. Trucks that roll down the road completely without a driver? Hardly imaginable today. Trucks whose drivers work calmly, watch television, or read a book while the truck steers them toward the destination? This is already reality today in a test environment. The driver seat in self-driving commercial vehicles is getting a whole new role: What is being asked for is more comfort as well as far-reaching connectivity and very different safety features. The seat specialist RECARO Automotive Seating is putting the spotlight on this topic at the IAA Commercial Vehicles 2016 in Hannover.

Self-driving commercial vehicles can be experienced in a variety of applications. Throughout the world, manufacturers are testing driverless trucks on highways in ports, on industrial sites, in quarries and in mines. GPS, cameras, radar and lasers make it possible to move these large companions easily from point A to point B. The safety advantage is clear: Sensors and computers react in split seconds in situations where a person would hesitate. Braking maneuvers or swerving can be carried out perfectly on an autonomous basis.


However, in the vision of autonomous driving, human beings are not dispensable in the long term. It is generally believed that full automation of commercial vehicles is not likely to be feasible until 2030 or later. Until then and beyond, a driver will always take over when a truck is on a non-highway road or in city traffic, or when the technical assistance systems are overwhelmed.


“In all these considerations, the driver seat, the central link between man and machine, is too rarely considered in our view,” says Markus Kussmaul, vice president of sales and marketing at RECARO Automotive Seating. “It plays an even more decisive role with autonomous driving than with a conventional car.” In his view, it makes sense to turn the seat away from the steering wheel while the car is driving itself to allow direct access to a table and get into resting positions.


“However, in riskier driving situations or shortly before the end of a stretch of autonomous driving, the driver seat has to be put back into a correct steering position quickly and reliably,” says Kussmaul, pointing out a crucial technological challenge.


The developers in the commercial vehicle area of RECARO Automotive Seating, a product group of Johnson Controls, have been working on these challenges for years. The crucial issue: the connectivity of the seat, which must be included in the exchange of data in the vehicle so that the seat can be quickly and automatically adjusted to current requirements. A prerequisite for the realization of this is the electrification of the seat, whose adjustment components must be completely operated by electric motors. Even features such as seat extensions, leg rests, individual back padding, climate control and massage functions are possible in this way. 


The same applies to warning elements such as a vibrating seat that could indicate to the driver that there are changes in the traffic situation. Or to a function that quickly aligns the seat in the direction of travel and brings it into the steering position. From the perspective of RECARO developers, a joystick for drive-by-wire directly on the armrest of the seat could be a possibility, through which the vehicle could be controlled electronically, regardless of the position of the seat in the vehicle. At the IAA 2016, RECARO will show concept seats that represent comprehensive electrification and comfort functions – basic requirements for the design of this driver environment in autonomous driving. 


However, the key issue remains safety in vehicles: Will it really be possible to rotate the driver seat or remove the driver from the steering wheel? “There are still no restraint systems that would reliably protect people seated transversely to the direction of a crash against serious injury,” says Kussmaul. “And it is unclear how lawmakers and insurance providers will position themselves in terms of a framework for self-driving commercial vehicles. On the basis of our concept seats, we therefore want to discuss with customers and fair visitors their ideas on the subject – and how the open questions relating to commercial vehicle autonomy should be dealt with.”