How far has the development of autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks has come, and where it is likely to go from here?

Self-driving trucks may figure prominently in George Osborne’s budget speech next week, if a flurry of recent headlines such as “Driverless lorries to be trialed in UK” are to be believed. But newspaper headlines can be misleading. Perhaps now would be a good time for a summary of how far the development of autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks has come lately, and where it is likely to go from here.

The Department for Transport (DfT) naturally refuses to speculate in any way about the contents of next week’s Budget, but a DfT spokesperson does confirm that UK trials of “HGV platoons” are planned.

“New technology has the potential to bring major improvements to journeys, and the UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of connected and driverless vehicles,” says the DfT.

Terminology is important here. Truly driverless cars are one thing, but even the engineers at the cutting edge of developments in connected and autonomous trucks do not expect them actually to be “driverless” in the near or even more distant future. Take, for instance, Sven Ennerst, Head of Truck Product Engineering at Daimler. He is the man behind the Future Truck 2025 Mercedes-Benz which has probably drawn more public attention to self-driving trucks than any other since its unveiling a little less than two years ago.

In May 2015, Daimler’s Highway Pilot autonomous truck control system won approval for trials on public highways in a Freightliner truck in the US state of Nevada. Then in October 2015, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg approved trials of Mercedes-Benz trucks with the Highway Pilot system on its autobahns.

Does this vehicle genuinely represent the sort of truck that could be in service on European roads within the next nine years, given the length of development time needed for any new heavy commercial vehicle?

Ennerst says, “What we have demonstrated is more or less what is available today. This truck is truly ready to steer autonomously, which is quite important for us. The technology is close to series production.

“One thing is for sure – the Highway Pilot system is steering the vehicle by itself. It builds a picture around the truck, looking up to 250 metres ahead, so basically it can react and drive by itself.”

Anyone who has been following recent development of commercial vehicle safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning, not to mention various self-driving cars, surely will be in no doubt that Ennerst is right when he says the technology exists. What Daimler’s Highway Pilot system does is bring it all together, using an array of radar sensors and stereo cameras.

Ennerst points out that a United Nations committee recently amended the 1968 Vienna Convention on road traffic to “provide the basis for legalisation on autonomous driving”. A key condition of this amendment is that the system can be deactivated or overruled by the driver at any time, and this is central to the design of the Highway Pilot.

Ennerst identifies three issues on which he is confident a business case for the truck will be built in future. These are safety, driver activity and fuel economy. On safety Ennerst maintains that the introduction of systems such as active brake assist and proximity control assist has already resulted in accident rates “falling significantly.” Integrating all these systems and more into Future Truck 2025 will make it safer still, he argues.

“In future, we will fuse all these systems together and create an additional level of safety,” he says. “Accident rates will fall further. We expect future safety systems to be priced so our customers will be content to pay for them because the increased safety will be of more value than that offered by individual systems. I expect insurance companies to reflect this with lower premiums.”

Turning to the question of driver activity, Ennerst accepts that operators and fleet managers may well be sceptical about the business case when they imagine drivers taking advantage of the truck’s ability to drive itself by sitting back and browsing the internet casually on a tablet computer. But he explains that Daimler is banking on a more fundamental change than this in the structure of the freight transport industry. If Daimler is right, it is the job of traffic planners that will go through even more of an upheaval than that of truck drivers.

Ennerst says, “We expect a change in the organisation of the freight forwarding industry. The driver will take over many of the traffic planner’s functions. He will become more of a transport manager than a driver, from our point of view.”

This gets to the nub of what Daimler sees as the  business case for self-driving trucks. Costs will be cut for truck operators and logistics companies because fewer traffic planners will need to be employed. Not only that, argues, Ennerst, but the technology could help solve the current acute driver shortage problem. “We expect to make the driver’s job more attractive by making it more of a transport manager’s job,” he says.

The third pillar on which Ennerst builds his Future Truck 2025 business case is fuel economy. He is confident that the sums will add up from an operator’s point of view.

“As you know, we are fighting like hell for every tenth of one per cent in truck efficiency gains at present,” he says. “We expect a fuel economy improvement of up to five per cent with trucks like this, as a result of less acceleration and braking and less waiting in traffic.”

Daimler is by no means the only truck manufacturer pursuing this line of reasoning. Scania started platooning truck trials in Sweden in 2012, and in 2015 extended them to the Netherlands. Also in the Netherlands in 2015, DAF Trucks started its EcoTwin project, run jointly with TNO, a Dutch scientific research organisation. This project also involves platooning, of two trucks linked by wi-fi so that the driver of the truck behind does not need to brake, accelerate or steer: all this is done automatically, based on signals from the lead truck.

Ron Borsboom, DAF Trucks Product Development Director, said, “Just because we have showed that automated platooning with two trucks is technically feasible, that doesn’t mean that we are actually there yet. We still need to do quite a lot of development work to ensure that the technology is completely reliable in any situation. Issues like legislation, liability and acceptance also have to be taken care of properly.

“Along with TNO, we expect that transport companies will be able to operate the first trucks using platooning safely on Dutch motorways and some major provincial roads by around 2020.”

Here in the UK, a project led by Tructyre Fleet Management in Hampshire is among the eight recently to have been awarded government funding totalling £20 million to research and develop autonomous vehicles. The “Pathway to Autonomous Commercial Vehicles” project led by Tructyre also involves the University of Portsmouth, Satellite Applications Catapult and RL Automotive.

The project’s central aim is said to be development of “an innovative solution to monitor key information from the vehicle and predict safety risks based on analytics.” A tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS) is at the heart of the research. Total project cost over 24 months is put at £1.2 million, with £900,000 coming from the government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

We’ll have to wait for the Chancellor’s Budget speech next week to find out whether this project is about to get a fresh shot in the arm, or whether funding is on the way for an entirely new project focused specifically on truck platooning.


Courtesy of Transport News Brief

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