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November 12, 2015

Autonomous Thoughts

The first autonomous truck was this Mercedes-Benz Actros  that was demonstrated 
in July 2014. Note the 2025 time frame that Daimler anticipated before adoption.
Daimler has grabbed headlines around the world, first with the self-driving Actros in Germany last year and now with a similar launch of the Freightliner Cascadia Evolution at the Hoover Dam, outside Las Vegas, Nevada. But is the autonomous truck an interesting exercise or doomed by public opinion never to make a big impact on the trucking scene?

The self-driving Google car is another thing altogether. It is small and targeted at a customer sector that wants plain transportation done for them.

Recently, Google has reported details about the accidents the Google prototypes have been involved in. The dozen or so incidents have all been only of fender-bender seriousness, causing no injuries to passengers or other motorists. 

And it turns out that virtually all were caused by other motorists misjudging the traffic or running into the back of the Google cars through inattention. Several were caused when drivers took over from the autonomous control, suggesting the self-driving car may indeed be safer than the regular motorist.

So the accidents were not the fault of the self-driving cars and the collateral damage was slight. The fear is that collateral damage around an accident with a 36- to 40-ton truck would be far more severe, and potentially life threatening. Further complicating the matter, the cause and liability would be up for serious legal wrangling.

When it first showed the Autonomous Truck, Daimler put the year 2025 in the title, indicating it expected many hurdles to acceptance and adoption.

In a way, the Freightliner demonstration, crossing the Hoover dam while the world’s biggest projection presentation was being made on the dam’s downside concrete wall, has a marginally better chance of success despite the litigiousness of American society.

The trucks already have special permits to run on Nevada’s highways (see previous blog) because its legislature is one of the most open-minded of the states in the driverless vehicle debate. Conceivably, trucking operations within the state may be able to take advantage of autonomous truck driving, with a few other enlightened states following suit.

Volvo's view of the future sees super aerodynamic and platooning trucks.
Volvo, though, thinks it has a better idea and one more likely to gain acceptance in the nearer future. While Daimler trucks offer driver benefits with some fuel optimization, Volvo’s suggestion of platooning trucks offers similar driver benefits — or even replacement of some drivers — and potentially greater fuel savings.

Volvo’s idea is to platoon vehicles using electronic drawbars, with each vehicle closed up tight to another for greater aerodynamic efficiency. Initially the trucks would run in pairs.

Platooning is not a new concept. Several decades ago as part of the Intelligent Highway System demonstration, transponders were set into the concrete in San Diego, California’s, express lanes on I-5 heading north of the city. I remember riding on a bus where the driver totally relinquished the controls to the roadway-enabled automation, and riding in cars traveling only a couple of feet apart at freeway speeds under total control of the roadway infrastructure.

Fast forward to today, and we have on-board technologies that have taken over the guidance function from embedded systems in roadways. Technologies like adaptive cruise control, automated lane-keeping and accident avoidance can be pressed into service.

In platooning, the technologies work in concert not just to protect the individual truck, but to create an “electronic drawbar” that couples one truck to another. The idea is that a lead truck and driver forge the way, and the following truck just follows. The second driver is then free to complete other tasks, though going back into the bunk is frowned upon!

The aerodynamic advantages of sucking the following vehicle close to the leader results in fuel savings for both; the follower gets the bigger advantage (up to 10%) but there is also a saving for the lead vehicle (up to 5%). And the concept is applicable to all trucks, not just in the same fleet.

The concept includes the ability for any pair of suitably equipped trucks to communicate automatically. If there is agreement, the platoon is enabled and the second truck tucks in behind the first.

Jeff Cottner, Volvo’s Chief Designer - Exterior, said the electronic drawbar concept could be extended to single-truck combinations, eliminating a mechanical connection such as a fifth wheel. Instead there would be a full truck or tractor and an electronically tethered intelligent trailer.

Taking the idea a step further, the trailers themselves could be autonomous and self-propelled. That way a lower-powered tractor could cruise the highway with a short train of self-propelled trailers, each adding its power to the train as it joined. The trailers could originate at a terminal close to the highway and at the appropriate time, make their way individually to the highway to meet up with the passing platoon.

Similarly, trailers could detach and go to their destination terminals as the truck platoon reached the appropriate off ramp. Then the platoon would automatically close up the space.

It’s a very cool concept, but it goes even further than the autonomous truck as the detached trailer would be entirely driverless. The intriguing proposal would be a solution to the driver shortage, as well as provide new logistics and supply-chain solutions for the future. But it will face the same or more extreme societal objections as the simple autonomous one-unit truck.


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