It seems in the past decade we’ve been swamped with the concept of autonomous vehicles. From Ford to Volvo, most vehicle manufacturers have at least one planned for production.
And it’s not just consumer vehicles, big truck manufacturers are working on technology to make their rigs autonomous. Yes, autonomous, not just automated.
The idea of cramming enough tech under the hood to make vehicles “smarter” may seem new, it’s really not. There is a difference between using tech to reduce/eliminate human error and making vehicles totally ‘driverless’.
To some extent, we’ve all been using some form of driver assistance (via automation) in vehicles for decades. These automation systems, sometimes referred to as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), include features like power steering, cruise control, anti-lock brake systems etc.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) categorizes autonomous systems as follows:
- At Level 0, there’s no automation – the driver remains fully engaged all the time.
- At Level 1, driver assistance – the driver remains fully engaged but may have feet off the pedals or hands off the steering, depending on which assistance feature is in use.
- At Level 2, partial automation – driver is fully engaged with eyes on the road but may have both feet and hands off.
- At Level 3, conditional automation – driver may be “feet-off”, “hands off” and “eyes off”, but must be able to resume control.
- At Level 4, high automation – driver is not expected to monitor the road and has no responsibility during autonomous driving mode.
- At Level 5, full automation – the self driving truck can complete an origin to destination trip, without any driver in the truck cab.
Traditionally, most trucks fall in the Level 0 category. These days, companies from Google’s Waymo to Daimler are working on Semi-Automated Self Driving Trucks (SASDTs) that are capable of automated driving on an interstate, under supervision.
By combining automation technologies in one vehicle, manufacturers can create vehicles that fall into the Stage 3, -4 and -5 on the SAE scale.
One example is the Freightliner Inspiration truck, which can operate autonomously. However, it’s classed as L3 on the SAE scale as a driver must be in the cab and ready to take control of the vehicle. To operate autonomously on public roads [in Nevada for now], the Freightliner uses an array of stereoscopic and radar sensors to collect input about its environment.
Other tech that makes automation possible include:
- LIDAR – A concept similar to radar but this uses lasers (instead of radio waves) to monitor & collect information about the surrounding environment. It uses this to create accurate, high-resolution 3D data.
- Video camera systems to read signs and roadway striping.
- A 4G/5G LTE high-speed wireless communications platform.
- V2x connectivity is used for communicating with other trucks during platooning.
- Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) adds ground-based stations as a third reference point between a vehicle and a GPS satellite. This increases accuracy to within a few centimeters.
By combining these technologies, heavy truck manufacturers have been able to produce autonomous systems up to SAE L5 (still in beta testing phase).
Some of the issues that using autonomous trucks can solve in the trucking industry include: the driver shortage, safety, high cost of fueling, productivity in the transportation network etc.
Let’s examine two major benefits of using autonomous trailers:
Increased Safety – Every year, accidents involving large trucks cause approximately 4,000 fatalities. Driver error is responsible for up to 95% of these accidents.
The use of autonomous trucking will eliminate errors due to driver fatigue, distraction, impaired driving. Automation technology e.g. forward collision warning systems, have already been proven to help lower the number of fatal crashes.
One ATRI survey extrapolates that if 90% of cars on American roads were fully autonomous, the number of accidents per year could drop to 1.3 million, with fatalities reducing to around 11,000 per year.
Lower CPM – With fuel making up 24.9% of CPM, fleets are constantly searching for ways to stay fuel efficient and profitable.
This has led to the use of truck platooning, a practice where heavy duty trucks engaged in long-haul trips, drive close behind one another. Driving in this manner increases their aerodynamic efficiency and in turn helps to save fuel, reduce emissions and utilize the road better.
Driving in a convoy like this has been proven to lower fuel costs by 5% in the lead truck and between 10 and 15% in the second, third, or fourth trucks in a platoon. Using a platoon made up of a combo of human driven/supervised trucks and fully autonomous trucks can offer fleets lower operating costs.
With drivers in the lead and following trucks to steer, platooning uses vehicle-to-vehicle communications (via radar & GPS) and autonomous vehicle control technology to electronically “tether” trucks in an efficient “road-train”.
All these advancements may seem pretty far off, but industry analysts say we’re only a decade away from having full, SAE L5 trucks on our highways. But companies like Uber and more recently Volvo may make this timeline even shorter; take a look at this timeline of progress:
- In May 2015, the Freightliner Inspiration became the first licensed commercial truck to operate autonomously on a public highway. This L3 truck uses radar and video camera systems to safely travel on highways. But it still needs the driver to take over when negotiating exits and interchanges.
- Uber’s Otto and Embark’s Recode use similar technology but also include 3 LIDAR units to monitor the truck’s environment and keep track of its position. These add-ons raise the rating to a SAE L4 level. The technology offered by both companies aims to enable completely unmanned trucks to travel on highways.
As proof that L4 technology works, Otto (now owned by Uber) completed an origin-to-destination delivery in October 2016. Using its autonomous system, Otto drove 120 miles down a public highway to Colorado, transporting 45,000 beers. During this demonstration, the driver drove onto the interstate highway, activated the vehicle’s autonomous mode, and retired to the truck’s sleeper berth for the rest of the journey.
- On July 11, 2017, Volvo Trucks (a division of the Swedish car maker) unveiled its VNL series of trucks. These come off the assembly line with an added suite of ADAS including forward collision warning, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, as standard equipment. This makes Volvo Trucks the first OEM to offer these as standard equipment on its vehicles.
With the tech moving so rapidly in an industry that employs around 3% of the American workforce, many assume it means truck drivers will soon be out of work. But this isn’t true as the technology isn’t perfect.
For example, these trucks cannot maneuver on inner city roads. Drivers are still required for last mile delivery. Drivers are also needed for the many things that happen either side of on-ramps and off-ramps, negotiating into loading bays, docking, weighing etc.
Even with all the advances in autonomous trucking, there is still a need for a human driver to be inside the vehicle.
Autonomous trucking technology is advancing at a dizzying rate, and is poised to change the trucking industry. With SAE L3 automation slowly becoming the new normal, I doubt it will take a decade before we have fully autonomous, L5 trucks whizzing down the highways.
Sure, there are still many unknowns in terms of regulatory and operational changes, but at Perfit Computers, we welcome the progress autonomous trucking will bring.
Robot at the wheel or not, you will still need to maintain your heavy trucks. Who knows, maybe one day, our fleet management software EMDECS will notify an automated truck, about a due PM, and it’ll just drive itself down to a repair facility.
That would be something, wouldn’t it?
To learn more about how Perfit Computers & EMDECS can help your business, contact us here now.