Trash collection is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, but Volvo’s betting autonomous dump trucks will make it all a little safer.
The car manufacturer recently teamed up with Swedish waste management company Renova to test its theory. Last summer, the companies partnered to debut a small pilot project with a few autonomous trucks to see if it improved safety and environmental standards and reduced traffic, Kurt Lindman of Renova tells Inverse. The project will continue through the end of the year.
The basic tech is pretty cool. When the truck is first taken down a new street, it’s driven, but it’s scanning the environment the whole time with GPS and LIDAR. The next time the truck goes down that same street, it has an accurate sense of the street, buildings, and even the individual garbage pails.
But the big innovation here is that, during collection, the car drives, well, backward.
As you’ve seen on your own street, dump trucks drive like any other car, but they have a gaping hole in the back and one or two human beings hanging off the side. The Volvo-Renova truck, however, moves gaping hole-first, allowing the humans doing the trash collection a more comfortable ride.
These kinds of improvements are important because trash collection consistently ranks as one of the top five most dangerous jobs in the United States, with fatal injuries around 33 per 100,000 workers, which is higher than the rates for police or miners.
Even when people don’t die on the job, the physically-demanding gig still puts a lot of wear and tear on the body. “We are committed to reduce physical wear on our staff, especially knees and feet,” Lindman says.
After the trial period is up this winter, Renova says it plans to reevaluate the trucks before committing to more.
“The testing period is important to verify that we have been able to consider all that could cause malfunctioning and risks,” Lindman of Renova tells Inverse. “We must see and document that the new way of transporting does not cause new problems or risks.” And, he adds, “The changed operation has also to be perceived as an improvement by our staff.”