‘Driverless’ trucks may take centre stage as fleets embrace new technology, Louis Bedigian finds out.

Self-driving car concepts have taken centre stage in the consumer vehicle market but, away from the limelight, technology is having a similar impact on commercial vehicles. Fleets could gain a lot from the fuel savings of platooning alone. Over time the benefits are expected to increase as vehicles do more of the work for their drivers, allowing long haul trucks to travel farther with fewer stops in between.

“There’s a huge need for autonomous trucking but it’s going to take time, it’s going to come in phases,” said Clem Driscoll, president of C.J. Driscoll & Associates. “One of the reasons is the shortage of truck drivers. If all of a sudden trucks were autonomous, you’d solve a big problem.”

Wes Mays, director of product innovation at Omnitracs, said that a third of the cost of operating a commercial vehicle goes to the driver. If that fee could be eliminated, fleets could significantly increase their return on investment. Said Mays: “When you replace the driver, many of the creature comforts that are utilised in a vehicle are no longer required, like heating, air conditioning and windshield wipers. The driver compartment can now be consumed by freight, so your freight capacity has gone up. I believe the financial impact is going to make autonomous operation a reality in the commercial vehicle space much quicker than in the passenger car market.”

Driver or no driver? That is the question

Not everyone agrees that drivers will be eliminated with the arrival of autonomous technology. Dan Murray, vice-president of research at the American Transport Research Institute, said that he has “no intention” of taking truck drivers out of the truck. He also takes issue with the term “driverless” because all of the autonomous vehicle tests have been conducted with drivers present.

Said Murray: “We think it will be a tool for the driving shortage crisis that we have by drawing new people, new Millennials in particular, into the trucking industry because they like multi-tasking, technology and social media. Just imagine a truck where you could get up out of the driver seat, go exercise, watch your 40-inch flat screen TV, send emails. Now we truly are a 21st century cutting-edge sector of the economy.”

Darren Gosbee, vice-presidentfor powertrain and advanced engineering at Navistar, hopes that drivers will be retained no matter how advanced autonomous vehicles become. He also wants them to have every technology available to make their job as painless as possible. “There are always going to be scenarios where the driver is the captain of the aircraft,” said Gosbee. “There are plenty of examples in the airline industry where, despite the fact that most of the planes are able to do autopilot, the captain has been able to save the day. I think that will always be the case, certainly in the foreseeable future. Having the driver there – but make his task easier – is the path we’re looking for.”

Large trucks also pose a greater risk for injury when involved in an accident. This concerns Barry Conlon, CEO of Overhaul. “There is no good outcome for a collision between a cyclist and a truck,” said Conlon. “You have trucks moving in areas where cars move today. They have to in order to get to locations to deliver product. If you’re going to remove trucks from that environment, you have to start building warehouses and locations where they aren’t currently today. That’s a massive restructuring and it’s just not going to happen, so they have to be able to commute and move around the same locations that cars move around in and that’s always going to require a driver.”

Conlon also spoke about the challenge of developing an autonomous truck that could understand how to navigate a confusing situation. He added: “When you pull into a dock and it changes, you’re going to have to move to another dock. The automation of that is going to be so much more challenging than just saying, ‘Go on this route from Los Angeles to Cincinnati’. That’s easy. The hard part is when you have to do the small stuff, and that’s where automation is always going to be challenging. That’s why drivers will always have a place. It could be a case where a driver simply hops in to move the vehicle but it’s still a human.”

No matter what happens, Driscoll does not want drivers to be taken out of the equation until all of the bugs are worked out of the vehicle. “You can’t do it prematurely and put the driver and those around the truck in danger,” said Driscoll. “If you’re going to say, ‘This is safe to have the vehicle drive itself until you exit the highway,’ it really has to be safe in all conditions to do that. Fleets have to be sure the drivers understand that they got to be alert. Drivers may doze off, they may be playing with a smartphone or tablet or because they feel that it’s safe for them to do that. It’s an issue that has to be dealt with.”

It all starts with ADAS

ADAS technologies have provided consumers with their first taste of what autonomy could do for transportation, and it is doing the same for commercial vehicles. “Fleets are using many of the basic ingredients of autonomous mobility: radar-based sensing, human machine interfacing, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, automatic collision mitigation technologies,” said Sandeep Kar, global head of content transformation and global vice-presidentof mobility at Frost & Sullivan. “These are already being used in trucks by fleets.”

April Sanborn, driver programmes manager for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, was surprised by how fast autonomous technology has moved from consumer to commercial vehicles. “Back in 2012, Nevada was tasked with creating regulations for the testing of and consumer deployments of autonomous vehicles,” said Sanborn. “We did not consider that commercial vehicles would happen anytime in the near future. We figured the general public is going to have this on their vehicle sooner than the commercial industry because there’s a whole lot of things that will go into play when we’re dealing with these big trucks on our roadways.”

Sanborn, who oversees autonomous vehicle programmes in Nevada, added: “Looking at the landscape now we realise that we got that a little bit backwards. The trucking industry is very involved in the automation of their vehicles for many reasons and they’re actually leading the charge. We see a lot of what they’re doing getting out into the public a lot sooner than our standard cars.”

Wallace Lau, team lead for automotive and transportation at Frost & Sullivan, concurred with Sanborn’s assessment that fleets are leading the way. Said Lau: “The trucking space actually provides a better applicability towards autonomous driving. It can provide the driver some relief in those long, monotonous parts of the road. You’ll be able to take advantage of the fuel savings as well.”

Achieving better fuel economy with platooning

One of the first autonomous features being tested is platooning, which allows commercial vehicles to drive close together to improve fuel efficiency. Volvo Trucks is among the automakers that have demonstrated its potential during long highway commutes. Said Murray: “The front vehicle can save as much as 4% fuel economy, the back vehicle 10%. At these particular fuel prices today, the argument isn’t as strong as if and when fuel costs increase but fuel is one of the top two costs, so managing it is important.”

When the technology is ready for deployment, industry players will then have to figure out how and when it should be used. Murray added: “I don’t foresee FedEx and UPS platooning together. Among other groups, owner operators who are essentially working for different employers, they don’t care quite as much about competitive business models as individual companies would care.”

Some companies might be willing to platoon together when shipping non-competitive items (ex: furniture, apples and bottled soda). But that introduces another challenge: which truck should get the best fuel economy?

“If trucks from different companies are working together, how do you rectify one of the trucks getting 4% fuel economy and one getting 10%?” Murray questioned. “That becomes very challenging unless you alternate every 50 miles. Maybe the system automatically alerts you, ‘Okay, now it’s your turn to go up front’.”

Connectivity and the difficulties ahead

If tomorrow’s trucks are going to rely on the cloud for any part of autonomy, it could require rural areas to install new infrastructure. For example, sensors might have to be installed to allow a smart city to communicate with an autonomous truck. Without any upgrades to the infrastructure, it may not be possible for the vehicle to stay connected at all times.

Said Conlon: “That’s the challenge and it’s just not going to happen. You’re not just dealing with federal. That’s easy. The government can pass a mandate that says we change the speed limit to 95mph, for example but when you’re dealing with local, state area, you’re dealing with so many different players who have a say. They will demand the utmost level of integration and safety. It becomes untenable.”

Mo Poorsartep, manager of advanced engineering at Valeo, thinks that connectivity goes hand in hand with automation and intuitive HMI. He believes that combination will enable the next generation of automotive technology. “Think of it as a three-legged stool,” said Poorsartep. “You can build one with two but it won’t be stable.”

No more truck stops?

One ongoing question is what will happen to the many rest stops that have been built to serve the trucking industry. If a truck can drive itself, the human inside may be less interested in exiting the highway to take a break.

“I could certainly see how there might be fewer truck stops but I think the ones that are going to exist are going to be larger,” said Mays. “You’ve still got the same number of vehicles on the road, they’re still consuming essentially the same amount fuel and they will need the same amount of service, so you really haven’t changed the dynamics of what’s going on at the truck stops.”

A far bigger change could occur inside the vehicle. Mays explained: “I believe the truck will be able to calculate where it needs to stop for fuel and determine, on its route, where the most optimal stop will be. There’s a huge benefit in knowing if there’s a wait line. A trucker can save 20 – 30 minutes if there’s not a guy in front of him.”

In the future drivers may not even need to visit a weigh station. The roadway could feasibly include a weight sensor that allows the truck to pass through without stopping. Sanborn speculated that this information could then be delivered wirelessly. Fuel stations may also be on the chopping block but not anytime soon. Said Sanborn: “Many of these vehicles are moving more toward electricity. Semis are definitely on the road to that as well. Then you think, we have these gas stations all over the place. What are those going to turn into, a drive-through coffee station? You’re not going to need the gas stations that we have.”

Technological achievements and consumer acceptance are two very different things, however. Gosbee isn’t sure that society is ready to hand the keys to a computer. “Aircraft have been effectively autonomous for many years but I still have a level of confidence and comfort when I see two pilots get in front of the aircraft,” said Gosbee. “If I was flying in a pilotless aircraft, I think I would be getting off the plane.”

Mays is less concerned about that. He envisions a future where autonomous vehicle technology has advanced to a point of near perfection.

“An autonomous vehicle is going to be necessarily completely safe,” said Mays. “It’s not going to make a risk-based decision. As we drive our personal vehicles, if there’s a vehicle in front of us that is driving a little slower than those around us, we tend to change lanes, sometimes too quickly, go around it and then insert ourselves in front of it. Autonomous vehicles won’t be operating like that. It will be a very uniform and quite honestly a very monotonous flow of traffic.”

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Connected Fleets USA 2017

25 Sep 2017 - 26 Sep 2017, ATLANTA, USA

Connected Fleets USA 2017 will assess the challenges and opportunities that new digital technologies present in managing the total costs of operating a fleet.