Coming soon: autonomous trucking

By: Steve Brooks

It has its sceptics but technology and corporate will are forging a bold new world of autonomous driving and truck platooning.

Autonomous _truck

New technology, particularly the radical kind, always comes with its challenges. More often than not it also comes with plenty of confusion, invariably expedited by commentators devoid of understanding or simply ignorant of the facts.

Such a technology is autonomous driving and the supplementary system of truck platooning.

Simply put, autonomous driving is where a vehicle’s highly advanced electronics, Wi-Fi and radar technology take over the functions of actually driving and steering a truck, particularly over long highway stretches, leaving the driver to sit back and take it easy but always able to assume physical control when required.

As for platooning, European sources describe it as the use of autonomous driving technologies for two or more trucks to communicate wirelessly and follow in close succession; a virtual stiff-bar, to put it in more into context.

Without doubt, it’s radical. But also without doubt, is that it’s happening.

But don’t panic, it’s not happening here. At least, not yet. One day perhaps, but right now there isn’t the slightest hint of a possibility of this in our part of the world. This is unquestionably a good thing if you take the view that Europe will sort the bugs out long before such intense technology is even close to entering the Australasian markets.

Still, such is the long-term potential of this technology to significantly enhance efficiency and safety, that the world’s major truck manufacturers are committing vast resources to the research and development of this technology and powering ahead with testing in real-world conditions.

Last April for instance, Europe’s top truck-makers (DAF, Iveco, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Scania and Volvo) took part in the world’s first Truck Platooning Challenge, organised by the Netherlands as part of its current presidency of the European Union.

Self-driving reality

A leading proponent of the platooning challenge was the Dutch Minister for Infrastructure and the Environment, Melanie Schulz.

"The results of this first ever major try-out in Europe are promising. It will certainly help make self-driving transport a reality," she commented.

With the platooning trucks running across national borders, the ultimate goal of the exercise is that it will be a springboard for the harmonisation of platooning rules and technology in Europe.

Swedish powerhouse Scania is a high-profile advocate of the technology, and for good reason according to senior engineer Assad Alam.

"Since up to half the fuel consumption for a typical heavy vehicle on a flat road can be spent on overcoming aerodynamic drag, it’s clear that platooning has the potential to provide substantial economic benefits for individual haulage companies in addition to the clear environmental gains," he says.

Convoy connection

Unsurprisingly, another big – arguably the biggest – player in the platooning field is the world’s leading commercial vehicle maker, Daimler Trucks.

Running three ‘connected’ new generation Mercedes-Benz Actros models from its Stuttgart headquarters to the major port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Daimler Trucks shares the view of others in the platooning challenge that significant fuel and CO² savings are achievable through the technology.

"Driving in a convoy is one of numerous examples to raise the performance of goods transport extensively with connected trucks," says Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, the global head of Daimler Trucks.

"We are consequently pushing this development."

Autonomous _truck2

According to a Daimler statement; "Connected vehicles in a platoon require a distance of only 15 instead of 50 metres between them. This considerably smaller distance produces a significant reduction in aerodynamic drag. In this way a platoon of three trucks can achieve a fuel saving of up to 10 percent, reducing CO² emissions in the same measure.

"In parallel with this, platooning allows much more efficient use of road space: a platoon of three linked trucks has a length of only 80 metres. In contrast to this, three trucks which are not electronically docked require a total of 150 metres of road space.

"At the same time platooning makes road traffic much safer: while a human behind the wheel has a reaction time of 1.4 seconds, Highway Pilot Connect transmits braking signals to the vehicles behind in less than 0.1 seconds."

Highway Pilot Connect is Daimler’s highly advanced system designed specifically for the automated driving of heavy trucks and was a central feature in an extensive range of existing safety and driver assistance technologies fitted to the platooning trucks.

According to Daimler, "… all the systems are linked with sensors of the Highway Pilot – radar and stereo camera. So all the technology is in the vehicle, and the truck does not need the internet for its automated driving function.

"The system is ideal for the motorway: it maintains the correct distance to the vehicle in front and brakes in good time if another vehicle cuts onto the road in front of it."

Critically, Daimler adds; "Highway Pilot does not replace the driver, but supports and relieves the strain by dealing with monotonous stretches (motorways) and taking care of annoying stop-and-go driving in a traffic jam.

"In automated mode the driver has control over the truck at all times and in tricky situations can take over driving of the vehicle again. The redundancy in the sensor system and fail-safe components such as the steering and brakes ensure an extremely high safety standard.

"If the minimum prerequisites for the system are not present due to bad weather or missing road markings, the Highway Pilot issues acoustic and visual impulses to ask the driver to take over. The driver has sufficient time to take over the task of driving (and) if there is no reaction from the driver, the truck brings itself to a standstill independently and safely."

Drowsy and distracted

Finally, Daimler points out that around two-thirds of all accidents in road traffic are rear-end collisions and accidents resulting from unintentionally leaving the lane. Often the causes are drowsiness, distraction and driving errors.

"This is where the Highway Pilot is superior to any human being. It is alert, concentrated and relaxed. Without exception, round the clock, seven days a week," Daimler concludes.

So if you still think autonomous driving and platooning are pie-in-the-sky stuff with little prospect for life in the real world, it might be time to think again.

Global corporations like Daimler, Volvo, Scania et al don’t throw vast sums and resources into technology of this level unless there’s the distinct likelihood of a big benefit somewhere down the track.

Sure, there will be challenges and, of course, every new technology comes with its presumptuous prophets of doom and gloom. But when the combined energies and expertise of such powerful entities are channelled in one direction, challenges inevitably become the source of success.

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