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Trucks and Automation

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A recent news article in The Wall Street Journal included this provocative sentence: “Some of the features being added to trucks are similar to those in cars, but generally the move to autonomy in commercial and industrial vehicles is far ahead of the autonomous systems offered on most passenger vehicles.” My reading of both the freight transport media and technology publications leads me to agree.
The U.S. trucking industry is motivated by several driving forces to move into vehicle automation. First, there is a huge and ongoing truck driver shortage, especially for long-haul drivers, so technologies that either make truck driving less stressful or partially substitute for drivers can help with that problem. Second, tougher truck fuel-economy regulations will kick in over the next few years, putting a premium on fuel savings (even if the price of oil remains relatively low).
The initial technologies offer partial automation (Level 2 or 3) that provides driver assistance with such tasks as keeping a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and staying in lane. An example is the Highway Pilot feature now available on Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution model, and by parent company Daimler’s Actros truck in Germany. Highway Pilot is a truck version of Adaptive Cruise Control, designed to be used on the highway but not in local traffic. If the system cannot see the road markings due to bad weather, or if such guidance clues are absent, the system alerts the driver to take over. A more-advanced version of Highway Pilot is installed on Freightliner’s Inspiration prototype vehicle, which has been licensed to operate on Nevada highways. This version includes on-highway steering, and qualifies as Level 3 automation.
I think the breakthrough application for long-distance trucking will be platooning. That requires Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control, enabled by software and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications among the two or more trucks operating as a platoon. The Federal Highway Administration has funded two test programs for truck platooning. One is run by the University of California’s PATH program, with Volvo Trucks, Cambridge Systematics, and others. The second program is managed by Auburn University, with Peterbilt Trucks, Peloton Technology, and the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). These and overseas platooning tests have documented 10% fuel savings for trailing trucks in a platoon (due to reduced aerodynamic drag) and up to 5% fuel savings for the lead truck (for the same reason). A separate FHWA platooning project for cars demonstrated platooning in September using five Cadillac SUVs equipped with CACC and V2V communications on a former naval air base in Pennsylvania.
I’m glad to see ATRI involved in one of these projects, since it is the primary trucking industry research organization and therefore better in tune (than academics) with the real world of truck companies and drivers. The big questions will revolve around when and where truck platooning will actually make sense. How feasible would it be for a company with a large fleet to have several of its trucks operating at the same time on the same long-haul route to obtain the benefits of platooning? Is it more realistic to have platoons form more or less spontaneously, via some Internet coordination, among trucks operated by different companies that happen to be heading in the same direction at the same time on I-70? Can trucks be added to and separated from ongoing platoons safely?
A second set of questions involves what corridors and what lanes such platoons will operate in, once the concept becomes well-accepted. If platoons of three to five 18-wheelers become common, how can smaller vehicles cope with getting onto and off of the Interstate when faced with a “wall” of big-rigs too close together to drive between safely? The advent of truck platooning may well strengthen the case for dedicated truck lanes, like those planned for the reconstructed and modernized I-70 across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Such dedicated truck lanes are also planned for I-710 in Los Angeles, which will be the site of the PATH truck platooning demonstrations.
(This article first ran in the December 2015 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)
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