[Translate to English:] Promovendus Jan Loof in de Lupo 3L. Foto | Bart van Overbeeke

Home Stretch | A helping hand with merging

In view of the number of traffic accidents involving trucks, it seems that truck drivers could use some help with merging. PhD candidate Jan Loof set about designing an automatic steering system with which a truck can change lanes entirely independently.

Anyone who drives with any regularity has no doubt had to step sharply on the brake because a truck chose that exact - and inconvenient - moment to change lanes. Such maneuvers account for a disproportionally large number of road accidents, tells PhD candidate Jan Loof. “Relatively speaking, trucks are involved in accidents far more often than passenger vehicles. Truck drivers work long, monotonous hours, which causes a decline in their concentration.” Moreover, he emphasizes, trucks are more difficult to steer; a quick swerve is not an option in a truck weighing several metric tons or more. “And given this scale, the damage involved in an accident is bound to be huge.”

Reason enough, therefore, to work on smart technology that can reduce the number of accidents involving trucks. Supported by a grant from science funding body NWO, mechanical engineer Loof developed a ‘merge assistant’ for trucks. “This is a system that enables the vehicle to carry out a merge maneuver independently – a step towards a fully self-driving car.” Many modern vehicles are now equipped with all kinds of sensors, such as radar, lidar and cameras, that can tell a driver when the road is clear. At some time in the future, these sensors could be connected to Loof's merge system.

The PhD candidate opted for a scenario in which in principle the driver keeps his or her hands on the steering wheel, thus retaining the option of intervening at any moment. “The truck can perform the maneuver without any help at all, but the power with which the steering wheel is automatically turned is such that the driver can easily take back control.” So the driver is literally feeling what the truck wants to do, but ultimately the power is in the driver's hands. “In keeping with this, the idea is that the system is activated only when the driver starts signaling.”

Working from a computer model of his own making, Loof managed to adapt the merge assistant's control system to suit real trucks. He subsequently tested his system in a vehicle simulator at TU Delft that he had access to through his colleagues there. This involved asking actual truck drivers to participate. “They thought it all felt remarkably realistic, and apparently that is pretty difficult to achieve.”

On the road too the PhD candidate has tested the system. Not with a truck, but with a much smaller – and safer – vehicle: a Volkswagen Lupo. “All we did there was adapt the power steering in order to simulate the steering feel of a truck, so that we could try out the merge assistant. A co-driver indicated by pressing a button when the car should move across. It was pretty thrilling, using a control algorithm I'd written myself. And a strange sensation, using a small passenger vehicle that steers like a truck!”

Photo | Bart van Overbeeke

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