MAN Truck & Bus

A MAN truck stands in the DUSS container terminal in UlmA MAN truck stands in the DUSS container terminal in Ulm

Terminal 4.0: Test run with automated truck


Following the successful testing of autonomous trucks at the Port of Hamburg, MAN is conducting another automation project in Ulm. There, MAN is also testing the use of a fully automated truck in real terminal operations together with partners in the ANITA project. A first step towards Terminal 4.0 has now been made given the completion of comprehensive analyses. A visit to site reveals that the route from road to rail is complex – exactly like that from analogue to digital.

A MAN truck stands in the DUSS container terminal in Ulm
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Automatically from road to rail Thanks to ANITA, an automated truck will handle container handling at the DUSS terminal in Ulm Dornstadt all by itself in the future.

The numbers are impressive: a container is moved up to 600 times a day at the 90,000 square metre DB Intermodal Services depot in the north of Ulm; between 50 and 60 times a day a truck transports one of the containers between the depot and the neighbouring terminal operated by DUSS (Deutsche Umschlaggesellschaft Schiene-Straße mbH) via a just under a kilometer short section of public road. Three 330-ton and 25-metre high gantry cranes at the terminal, travelling along a 700-metre long crane runway, transfer the containers onto trains. There are four tracks and four sidings here where Deutsche Bahn organises the transshipment – and this will increase: combined traffic is one of the strongest growth markets in the entire freight transport sector. Over the coming years, the aim in Ulm Dornstadt will therefore be to create a new module with automated cranes.

Delivery traffic in the depot and at the terminal involves many paper-based processes, a short hub-to-hub destination between the two locations and an innovative environment, yet it faces the future prospect of reaching its limits given the existing infrastructure: but there is huge potential for greater efficiency and flexibility in Dornstadt. And that is precisely the reason why the ANITA participants chose it as the ideal setting for their trials (ANITA stands for “Autonome Innovation im Terminalablauf” – Autonomous Innovation in Terminal Operations). The ANITA participants are MAN Truck & Bus, Deutsche Bahn, Fresenius University of Applied Sciences and Götting KG. Since July 2020, the partners have been working on this 39-month pilot project funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Its objective is to automate the transshipment between transport modes and to take the next step towards automated hub-to-hub traffic.

Extensive nationwide analyses

The initial task was to record and digitally map the existing infrastructure and all interfaces, so that in future both truck and terminal will be able to communicate with each other. A complex undertaking that Fresenius University of Applied Sciences has now completed. The researchers spent around a year capturing the tacit knowledge. This involved observing and describing the processes relating to both people and machines, analysing documents and regulations and conducting interviews with truck and reach stacker drivers, dispatchers and freight forwarders on site. “This tacit knowledge involves established and proven rules that aren’t written down anywhere – such as a nod of the head as a signal between truck driver and crane operator or other spontaneous, human decisions”, explains Professor Christian T. Haas, head of the Institute for Complex Systems Research at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. “We need to understand such rules so that we can subsequently programme them into the truck as an algorithm.”

The analysis was not only conducted in Ulm, but also at other DUSS sites. The ultimate intention is for these algorithms to be transferred to other terminals, ports and industrial facilities where autonomous vehicles will operate. Programming differences must therefore be considered from the start. “Each terminal has its own rules. We have defined generalised functions for all terminals as well as locally applicable, specifying functions”, Haas explains – a major challenge: “Unlike humans, an automated system cannot improvise or bend the rules. It needs a clear instruction for action in every situation.”

Language skills for autonomous trucks

The next step is to transfer the resulting modular circuit diagram into mission planning software. For the first time in such a development process, this will involve the use of Contract Specification Language developed by the company Deon Digital, which is a cooperation partner with Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. MAN and Götting will at the same time use the results to further develop the autonomous truck.  Test runs with the automated prototype vehicle are planned for the second half of 2022; always with a safety driver on board.

MAN has already conducted trials with driverless trucks at the Port of Hamburg. “ANITA enables us to tackle the next level of complexity on our automation roadmap”, is how the head of Advance Electronics Development at MAN Truck & Bus, Andreas Zimmermann, classifies the project in Ulm which involves more external traffic and interaction with the infrastructure. “Here we’ll therefore deploy a truck with similar automation technology as the one used in Hamburg, including numerous lidars, radar sensors and 360-degree cameras, but which has an even higher state of developmental readiness.” A large multidisciplinary team in the MAN Development division has been working on this. “We're also utilising our synergies within the VW Group”, adds Zimmermann. “Our automated truck reflects VW’s automated passenger car technology, just adapted for the truck sector.”

A solution for off-peak periods

The first phase in ANITA is therefore completed. Zimmermann already sees the project as a success: “We at MAN believe it’s important for us to develop new technologies together with our partners, as this enables us to include requirements from practice at an early stage. That’s working perfectly in this case.”

DUSS CEO Andreas Schulz is also satisfied with the interim result. He’s already looking to the future: “The trips between depot and terminal result in cost and effort for us, and then there are also off-peak times at night and on weekends when the drivers aren’t available. So ANITA can make a contribution to increasing the capacity of our existing infrastructure.” Indeed: the time of day is irrelevant when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

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