Data will unlock truck navigation’s full potential

As truck navigation changes amid the electrification shift, data could prove to be the most crucial ingredient in its transformation. By Will Girling

From road freight digitalisation and electrification to the evolution of driver workplaces, the commercial vehicle (CV) segment is experiencing a significant period of change. “It can be difficult for carriers to keep up with how both roads and the industry are changing,” says David Morris, Senior Product Manager at Trimble Maps. A division of the global software, hardware and services firm Trimble, the company develops innovative commercial map-based navigation solutions focused on route planning and optimisation, visualisation and execution.

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“Drivers need to keep up to date with new regulations and legislation that can affect their journey. Navigation data must reflect everything from complex low emission zones to road closures and noise pollution restrictions, which are constantly changing.” Indeed, the number of ultra-low emissions zones across Europe increased 40% to 320 between 2019 and 2022, according to research published by the Clean Cities Campaign. This is expected to increase even further to 507 by 2025.

Cooperating on navigation

During this volatile time, Trimble Maps is supporting drivers through back-office optimisation and in-situ navigation solutions—the former with its web services applications and the latter with CoPilot.

Trimble’s cloud-based solutions allows fleet managers to dynamically optimise routes according to the resources available, such as the number of available drivers and vehicles. Schedules and ‘what if’ scenarios can be factored in to account for last-minute changes. Meanwhile, CoPilot provides a highly accurate GPS solution that uses vehicle dimension data to plan the most efficient route. Trimble claims that CoPilot can help lower fuel costs by at least 10%, reduce the risk of costly collision incidents, and boost driver retention by improving working conditions. “Both are required: the route plan needs to be as efficient as possible, but drivers don’t want to face fines for driving down a road with a lower emission class than yesterday,” states Morris.

Morris informs Automotive World that the company augments its 30 years of technical expertise with broad stakeholder communication to constantly add value to its solutions. “We have a dedicated mapping team working with governments to get the most up to date data possible.” Also, by liaising with drivers directly, Trimble Maps can quickly incorporate route data before it is even available from authorities. “Trucking is a very cooperative industry: more than 1.9 million drivers use our apps, and their live feedback helps us serve the wider community.”

Electrification challenge

While the parameters for success are well established for internal combustion engine (ICE) CVs, electrification has the potential to disrupt old navigation paradigms. Early battery-electric CVs have relied on charging infrastructure primarily designed for light-duty vehicles, according to a December 2022 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation. In order to achieve full recharging times of approximately 30 minutes, charge points will need a power output of at least 350kW. However, fast and ultrafast charging infrastructure is still far from ubiquitous in many territories. Chargers with a lower power output (between 50kW and 150kW) will likely require more than eight hours. Therefore, route navigation must be specifically configured to account for fast-charger availability, the length of driver breaktimes, and proximity to overnight charging depots.

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Morris believes the initial impact of electrification on fleet navigation will be spread unevenly depending on the route. Short haul will remain close to depots, making charging a less pressing issue, and some industry commentators have identified this as the most immediately desirable use case. “The biggest change will obviously be for long-haul cargo, because those drivers will be travelling hundreds of miles and must locate an available charger that’s right for their vehicle type during the journey,” says Morris. Recharging during a driver’s mandated break will be the most time-efficient moment. Therefore, planning and navigation will need to become much more intricate to synchronise CV range, traffic conditions, and driver requirements.

Despite this, he emphasises that electrification “is really trying to solve the same problem as ICE, but slightly differently.” Whether diesel or battery-electric, factors such as cold weather, fuel/energy prices, and road gradient will inevitably impact the efficiency of a route. Currently undeveloped CV recharging infrastructure might temporarily exacerbate the problem for electric trucks, but Morris states the fundamentals of fleet navigation solutions will not change in the long run.

The future is data

While electrification might just require a readjustment of CV navigation, autonomous freight could have a much greater effect. Acknowledging that autonomous trucks (ATs) will be a substantial data challenge, he emphasises that Trimble Maps considers it “an exciting one”. Online data platform Statista estimates that 97 zettabytes of data were consumed worldwide in 2022. By 2025, this is expected to almost double to 181 zettabytes. The amount of data required to enable autonomous vehicles on a global scale could even constitute an environmental crisis. However, the autonomous sector could indicate how vehicle navigation will evolve generally. “The future is data, but we need to decide how to make use of it,” says Morris.

The dream is to always drive on roads where the light is green and never have to stop

Indeed, the intricacies of SAE Level 4+ make the development of autonomous vehicles inextricably linked to the precision of navigation tech. “It will completely change the audience,” he adds. “Navigation will become less focused on the driver and more on artificial intelligence systems.” In addition to processing terabytes of sensor data every hour in order to drive safely on public roads, ATs will also need a real-time data feed about their route, including weather conditions and traffic updates. Morris emphasises this will add pressure for GPS solution providers: “Since a machine will be interpreting the data and not a person, it needs to be of the highest quality possible.”

From a safety perspective, greater access to local weather data will help drivers (human or machine) navigate safely by avoiding rain or snow patches. Furthermore, Morris anticipates the expansion and improved connectivity of intelligent traffic systems worldwide having a profound effect on route planning. For example, if navigation software calculated how long an upcoming traffic light would stay red, it could adjust course, if necessary, in real-time. “The dream is to always drive on roads where the light is green and never have to stop,” Morris concludes. The fundamentals of truck navigation will arguably always remain the same: drivers must be able to plan routes appropriate for their vehicle size, fuel/energy requirements, delivery schedule and cargo. However, it will be reconciling these basics with data and the other innovations of a rapidly evolving sector that will constitute truck navigation’s greatest opportunity.

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