Many OEMs have an eye on self-driving truck technology – as do their suppliers – but with legislation posing a hindrance to testing and a number of timelines suggesting driverless vehicles in general are still some way off, when can the autonomous truck realistically be expected?
Likely – but when, and why?
Recent developments across the trucking sector have led to suggestions that autonomous trucks will become a reality before passenger cars. Hans-Werner Kaas, a Senior Partner at McKinsey, agrees, and believes this is likely to happen between 2023 and 2040.
There are several reasons behind this. The first is that trucks spend the majority of their time on the highway at a more-or-less fixed speed. Semi-autonomous technology such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and blindspot detection effectively enables the truck to drive itself in these conditions.
“The autonomous truck of the future is an extension of existing, individual systems already available for today’s commercial vehicles,” says Bill Kahn, Peterbilt’s Principal Engineer and Manager of Advanced Concepts. Kahn emphasises that heavy-duty trucks are an ideal platform for automated operation because, compared to passenger cars, “commercial vehicles travel the majority of their miles on modern highways, at constant speeds and for extended periods of time.” Peterbilt has gone as far as demonstrating how its autonomous Model 579 truck ‘could’ perform, but is yet to take testing to public roads.
In 2012, trucks transported around 70% of all freight tonnage in the United States, a total of 9.4 billion tons. Globally, road freight transport is expected to triple between now and 2050, and autonomous trucks are expected to provide an opportunity to cope with this growth in an efficient and safe manner.
Get in line
Platooning is heralded as the gateway to fully-autonomous trucking. The technology uses vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I or V2X) wireless communication and radar to ‘pair’ trucks together. This allows several trucks to travel closely together and create an aerodynamic system.
Denso recently demonstrated its support for this technology by finalising an investment agreement with Peloton Technology, a California-based developer of platooning systems for large truck transportation fleets.
Megatrends heard from Patrick Powell, Director of Heavy Duty Engineering at Denso, who explains that for the lead truck in a platoon, there is reduced drag compared to a solo vehicle, and for the following trucks there is reduced air resistance. With less effort required from the engine, the trucks will consume less fuel, all without input from the driver. “The distance between trucks varies based on a number of different factors such as the environment, weather and hills, and the designs or weight of the trucks travelling,” he notes.
For platooning to work, however, connected corridors need to be in place, says Martin Green, Planning Manager, Connected Technology at Visteon.
“The connected corridor looks at ways to provide ubiquitous coverage over some of the managed motorway networks so that information about road conditions and vehicle speed can be directly transmitted into the vehicle, reducing the reliance on road signs,” he says. Ultimately, Green believes the goal is to be in a situation where a platoon of trucks travelling down a major route can be monitored at every step of the way. “As soon as something goes wrong further down the line, such as congestion, you can do something about it immediately,” he points out.
Volvo Trucks also has stakes in Peloton’s platooning technology. However, as it stands, it seems that platooning is as far as the OEM is looking in the short- and medium-term. According to Göran Nyberg, President of Volvo Trucks North America, “no one is going to see autonomous heavy-duty trucks in our lifetimes”.
Neck on the line, or foot in the door?
Nyberg’s comments suggest a lingering pessimism within the industry, but many OEMs are actively investigating autonomous trucking in self-contained off-road environments, away from potential hazards such as pedestrians, traffic and infrastructure. Because of the risks, it has taken a while for anyone to dip a toe into the icy waters of public road testing.
In July of last year, Daimler Trucks provided the world´s first demonstration of an autonomous truck in action when the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 drove along a cordoned-off section of the A14 Autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany. According to the OEM, taking this truck to a public road in the US was “the next logical next step on the journey to series production.”
Less than a year later, on 5 May 2015, the state of Nevada granted Daimler’s Freightliner brand with a road license for an autonomous heavy-duty truck – the first OEM to receive such a license. Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck drove on highway 15 in Las Vegas equipped with an intelligent Highway Pilot system which includes a front radar and stereo camera, as well as driver assist systems (DAS) such as adaptive cruise control (ACC).
Daimler says Nevada was selected as the demonstration location because it is one of four states with laws regulating autonomous vehicle operation. Florida, California and Michigan have also passed legislation allowing testing of autonomous vehicles. Legislation enabling testing in Nevada that passed in 2011 and 2013 regulates the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles, including commercial trucks. However, such standards specify that a minimum of 10,000 miles (16,000km) must be driven in autonomous mode under test conditions before a license can be granted.
Good news for suppliers
As well as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that are enabled through camera, ultrasonic, infrared, radar and lidar sensors, there are other systems that need to be considered.
Although adoption is slow (for now), Nexteer Europe’s Engineering Director, Paul Poirel, recognises that many OEMs are making the switch to electric power steering. But just how important will these units be in fully-autonomous driving? “In some instances, the driver will not be driving – he will be distracted or reading – so if there is any kind of fault or alert, he will need a few seconds to regain control of the vehicle,” Poirel tells Megatrends. “Because of that, the steering system will need extra flexibility and reliability in order to operate in terms of milliseconds rather than seconds.”
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently made a number of recommendations to address road safety, such as requiring OEMs to install forward collision avoidance and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems as standard equipment on commercial vehicles (CVs). These calls have been echoed by Meritor Wabco, which currently supplies its own collision mitigation system, OnGuard, for trucks in North America. OnGuard alerts the driver to potentially critical driving situations. These technologies are crucial within autonomous cars, as they effectively act on the driver’s behalf to avoid an incident – handy in the event of an unexpected road hazard or moments of driver drowsiness.
In an interview with Megatrends, Steve Hampson, President and General Manager at Meritor Wabco, tackled the question of whether the industry is taking control out of the hands of the driver. Hampson believes the driver still has an important role to play, and “there are stepping stones to an autonomous or semi-autonomous truck – it’s not a quantum leap.”
As the prospect of self-driving trucks draws ever closer to becoming a reality, there is some speculation as to whether they will still be making headlines in 2025, or whether self-driving trucks by then will be the norm.
Weighing in on the topic, Hampson explained that the life-cycle of trucks will have an impact on the mix of autonomous vehicles: “The landscape will certainly be different in 2025, but the average age of a heavy truck in the US is eight or nine years. In 2025, there will be vehicles that are ten, 15 years old, operating on the highway as well as vehicles with the new technologies. You have to take into account there will not be a totally driverless highway straight away,” he said.
Looking forward, Hampson foresees autonomous systems offering increased support for the driver, but admits there will be circumstances where some form of human control will be always required. “The main point would be finding the right balance of technology, convenience, safety and efficiency. That will be what drives us forward over the next ten years.”