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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.

November 9, 2015

Sharing Info, Eaton and Cummins Make an Awesome Powertrain Product

ProStar with 2017 Cummins ISX and heavy-haul Western Star.
As part of an Eaton/Cummins Ride ‘n Drive, I got my first drive of the Advantage setup where the Cummins ISX and Eaton Ultrashift Plus are coupled and ‘talk’ to each other for unprecedented performance and fuel economy. 

This is unique in the industry, with the two participants revealing proprietary information to link their components together for the benefit of the customer. And where each individually might be at a disadvantage compared to emerging integrated powertrains, by this cooperation the two suppliers maintain their opportunities in an increasingly hard-fought marketplace.

Changes for 2017 Cummins are on the inside. 
Eaton sweetened the event with introduction of a new direct-drive version of the Eaton Ultrashift Plus. Cummins brought along additional excitement in a first opportunity to drive the 2017 ISX. The company also announced new ratings available in the Advantage package.

The driving demonstrations were staged at a press ride ‘n drive, held last week at Eaton’s Marshall, MI., proving ground. Cummins brought along two trucks with 2017 versions of the ISX for drivers to experience and compare the new Direct-Drive and the existing Small Step overdrive automated transmissions, and for editors to see for themselves how “driveable” the new engines are going to be.

Eaton’s Direct Drive option joins the Small Step overdrive offering to reach more narrowly targeted customer bases. The overdrive set-up is for line-haul applications where cruise is generally 62 mph or more and engine downspeeding brings economy. 

Low-speed maneuverability enhancements for Ultrashift Plus.
Enabling this are new axle ratios from Dana and Meritor with 2.66- and 2.68-to 1 respectively. The new Advantage Direct is for regional and shorter-haul where urban conditions are more often encountered. In this case speeds are generally in the 50 to 62 mph region.

The rationale is, for highway operations, the inefficiency of an overdrive is more than compensated by the downspeed advantage. In regional operations the fuel efficiency of direct drive is realized. A qualifying matrix allowing customers to see which is better suited to their operations has been released at

Eaton also debuted two new low-speed operating mode options for the Ultrashift Plus: Urge-to-Launch and Blended Pedal.

The first is easier to understand: Where the normal launch mode is enabled by releasing the park brake, then easing down on the accelerator pedal, the Urge-to-Launch is enabled by simply releasing the park brake. As the brake releases the electronically-controlled clutch closes quite quickly and the truck starts rolling, much as an automatic car would.

A further enhancement is the availability of a creep mode. If the driver stays off the accelerator the truck will stay in the starting gear and roll at idle speed. The driver can then bump gears up with the manual switch to pick up speed, still staying in the creep mode. This is highly useful in a column of traffic that may be rolling at a low speed and saves the truck driver from using accelerator and brake to keep pace.

The second new feature is Blended Pedal and is targeted at vocational customers, especially transit mixer fleets. In this mode the transmission mimics a driver of a standard-shift transmission using clutch slip to slowly maneuver a truck, as in a concrete pouring situation, for instance.

In operation, Blended Pedal uses the first travel of the accelerator as a modulating clutch closer, so the degree of slip is varied from disengagement to full engagement over half of the pedal travel. Then there is a slight dead spot before the accelerator pedal is given back and the truck can be accelerated through the gears as normal. This fine control is enhanced in vocational operations especially by the Hill Start Assist which holds on to the service brakes for up to three seconds in launching on a steep slope.

This was demonstrated in hill starts in forward and in reverse, where the demonstrator mixer could be balanced on the blended accelerator with more pedal travel bringing the truck into motion either backward or forward according to the gear selector position.

Blended pedal is also valuable in highway tractor in reverse when backing under a trailer. Early Ultrashifts with their centrifugal clutch were criticized for a lack of finesse in this situation. With Blended Pedal the driver now has very fine control of backing speed and can control the tractor during coupling to ease slowly into the trailer kinpin.

The opportunity to experience the 2017 ISX and both overdrive and direct Ultrashifts in Inetrnational ProStars showed that the shift regime is different on the differing transmissions. The direct holds on to top gear as long as it possibly can. The overdrive will swap easily between direct top and overdrive to maximize performance.

The 2017 Cummins engines showed great refinement in the accelerator pedal modulation and excellent communication with the transmission(s) enabling smooth shifts both up and down as the transmission controlled the fueling of the engine. The direct Ultrashift also took advantage of the new calibrations for 2017, lugging down to 970 rpms before initiating a downshift.

Feature already available on the Advantage are the two-level Smart Torque and the very effective Smart Coast. The latter disengages the back box in the transmission when the torque sensing sees no load in a mild downhill cruise. The engine drops to idle as the fuel is cut back. The surprising this is how often in general driving Smart Coast is engaged – as much as 30 percent of the time in gently rolling countryside, for instance.

With its 2017s, Cummins will also be simplifying and extending the performance upgrade path for fleets that trade to the second owner. There will be no hardware change when upping engine horsepower at the higher levels, so a fleet that specs 450 hp in its application will be able to uprate the engine to as much as 605 hp for resale, greatly enhancing the trucks residual value.

Eaton’s new low-speed enhancements are selectable through the ServiceRanger service tool. For fleets and owners that don’t have the tool, a dealer can reprogram the shift controller to enable both Urge-to-Launch and Blended Pedal on all transmissions and can be selectable for forward, reverse or both. For more information go to or search on Eaton Ultrashift Plus on YouTube.