Autonomous trucks: How soon and how much?

Despite many countries rising up to the challenge of autonomous trucks, it is highly unlikely to yield a truly driver-less automobile.

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Team CV

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Excitement about automonous trucks continues to rise. Especially after Daimler AG put an autonomous truck on the German autobahn last year and followed it up with an autonomous drive over a public road in the USA. More and more countries are rising up to the challenge of autonomous trucks. In his budget speech on March 16, 2016, Chancellor George Osborn announced that government will establish in UK a global centre for excellence in connected and autonomous vehicles; conduct trials of driverless vehicles on the strategic road network by 2017; will consult on sweeping away regulatory barriers within this Parliament to enable autonomous vehicles on England’s major roads; establish a £15 million ‘connected corridor’ from London to Dover to enable vehicles to communicate wirelessly with infrastructure and potentially other vehicles, and carry out trials of truck platooning on the strategic road network.

The image of a Daimler engineer reading a magazine behind the wheel of a giant lorry may look amusing and even scary as the truck races down an autobahn, known as a symbol of Germany’s penchant for speed, the question, as more countries join the autonomous vehicles race, and especially that of trucks, is how autonomous will the vehicles actually be? Many may agree to the fact that autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to bring major improvements to journeys, both in terms of convenience as well as safety. The extent of automation, even those that are working on autonomous vehicle programs are of the opinion, or it seems, is not going to yield a truly driverless automobile. Not in the near future, and neither in distant future!

Look at the Daimler’s Highway Pilot autonomous truck trial. The Highway Pilot autonomous control system won approval for trials on public highways in a Freightliner truck in the US state of Nevada. Late last year, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg approved trials of Mercedes-Benz trucks with the Highway Pilot system on its autobahns. Both, as mentioned earlier, have built a good deal of excitement that giant rigs can actually drive themselves. The reality is, these are one of their kind, and may remain the case. It took a long time to develop such working concepts, and it may take longer than that to create an ecosystem that will accommodate such driverless vehicles. This however should not be a reason to be discouraged; technologies that have gone into these autonomous driving concepts are already found in many modern vehicles. There are some that are closer to production. Almost all of these however work such that they aid the driver, leaving him to make the most important decisions. If Sven Ennerst, Head of Truck Product Engineering at Daimler AG is to be believed, what his company has demonstrated is more or less available even today. Technologies that make a truck to steer itself autonomously. Not quite close, but important, is the mention of Volvo’s dynamic steering technology, which improves maneuverability through a precise electric motor, which is controlled 2000 times per second based on driver input and that of the onboard sensors. Volvo Trucks have been conducting autonomous and connected truck trials. It did an autonomous truck trail in the USA much like what Daimler managed.

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The Highway Pilot system steering the vehicle by itself marks a big achievement, and irrespective of the fact that autonomous vehicles will not be the thing of the near or distant future. It builds a picture around the truck, looking up to 250 metres ahead. It is easy to understand what Ennerst is saying when it expressed that the truck can react and drive by itself. Technologies like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning that would have been used in the Mercedes-Benz autonomous truck, and comprises of radar sensors and stereo cameras, are already being offered in automobiles. So, the technology is there. What is the bone of contention, so to speak, in terms of who is responsible in a likely event of an accident, are the regulations. They have been framed to suit the local needs and designs. It was perhaps because of this that Daimler found it easy to conduct the autonomous truck trial in the USA rather than in Europe. 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. This is central to the design of the Highway Pilot! Ennerst is known to have said that safety, driver activity and fuel economy will make a business case for automonous trucks. With the demand for fuel efficiency on the rise, the fuel economy part of the business case is easy to understand. In the case of safety, the need is to understand how the introduction of systems like active brake assist and proximity control assist has resulted in the reduction of accident rates. The future of an autonomous truck will depend on how these and a host of other systems are successfully integrated.

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Set to create an additional level of safety and reduce the number of accidents, automonous trucks are certain to make fleet operators skeptical. It may not account for a profitable business case when they imagine the driver of the truck sitting back and browsing the internet. Ennerst is known to have stated that they expect the driver to take over many of the traffic planner’s functions. The driver would thus become more of a transport manager. With the need for fewer traffic planners, the operating costs of fleet operators will come down. It would also address driver shortage. Driver’s elevation to a traffic manager will make it attractive for him to work as well as earn more. Reduction in fuel consumption achieved by autonomous trucks, which shift gears on their own, and apply the amount of power to have the engine rotate at an optimal rpm, also makes an attractive attribute for lowering the operating costs. Less use of brakes would also result in less wear and tear of braking system components. Most of all, there will be less traffic jams to contend with.

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Scania started platooning truck trials in Sweden in 2012. In 2015, it extended the trails to the Netherlands. In 2015, DAF Trucks also began its EcoTwin project in the Netherlands, run jointly with TNO, a Dutch scientific research organisation. This project would involve platooning of two trucks linked by wi-fi so that the driver of the truck behind does not need to brake, accelerate or steer. Braking, acceleration and steering is taken care of automatically, based on signals from the lead truck. According to Ron Borsboom, DAF Trucks Product Development Director, there’s still quite a lot of development process that needs to be done to ensure that the technology is completely reliable in any situation. It is also important that issues like legislation, liability and acceptance also have to be taken care of properly. In UK, Tructyre Fleet Management is among the eight bodies that were awarded government funding totalling £20 million to research and develop autonomous vehicles recently. The project, ‘Pathway to Autonomous Commercial Vehicles’, run by Tructyre also includes the University of Portsmouth, Satellite Applications Catapult and RL Automotive. The aim of the project is to develop an innovative solution to monitor key information from the vehicle and predict safety risks based on analytics. At the core of the research is a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS).

Daimler Trucks drives first autonomous truck on public roads

 

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Daimler Trucks became the world´s first manufacturer to be granted a road license for an autonomous heavy-duty truck. The first journey in the so-called Freightliner Inspiration Truck, which took place on US highway 15 in Las Vegas, was made by Brian Sandoval, Governor of Nevada, and Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard. The truck is equipped with the intelligent Highway Pilot system for autonomous driving. The state of Nevada licensed two Freightliner Inspiration Trucks for regular operation on public roads. Daimler Trucks is the global leading truck manufacturer and, with the Freightliner brand, also the biggest producer in the U.S.
“Our Freightliner Inspiration Truck is the world´s first autonomous commercial vehicle to be licensed for road use. Our achievement here underlines yet again our role as a technological pioneer and demonstrates our consistent dedication to develop the technology for autonomous long-distance driving to series production standard. I am proud of this extra-ordinary achievement by the Daimler Trucks team,” stated Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler AG board member responsible for Trucks and Buses.
Highway Pilot system to be developed to series production standard
Transport in the future must be even safer, more efficient and more networked – this is the aspiration that Daimler Trucks has expressed in the new Freightliner Inspiration Truck. In July of last year, Daimler Trucks provided the world´s first demonstration of an autonomous truck in action when the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 drove along a cordoned-off section of the A14 autobahn near Magdeburg. Now, the first appearance of the Inspiration Truck on a public road in the U.S. marks the logical next step on the journey to series production. In the last few months the technology has been tested over many thousands of kilometers and configured for use in U.S. highway traffic.
“We are in a unique position among manufacturers that we are able to implement technologies across all business units and brands. We have transferred our Highway Pilot system to our U.S. Freightliner brand within a very short time frame and developed it for the world´s first autonomous truck to be licensed for road use,” reports Dr. Bernhard.
Spectacular world premiere near Las Vegas
The world premiere of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck took place near Las Vegas, in front of representatives of the media, government as well as business and finance. Trucks are by far the most important means of transport in the U.S. In 2012, trucks transported around 70 percent of all freight tonnage in the United States. This way, a total of 9.4 billion tons of freight were moved by trucks. Globally, the road freight transport is expected to even triple between now and 2050. Autonomous trucks provide the opportunity to cope with this growth in a manner that harmonizes economic and environmental needs.
“Nevada is proud to be making transportation history today by hosting the first U.S. public highway drive for a licensed autonomous commercial truck. The application of this innovative technology to one of America’s most important industries will have a lasting impact on our state and help shape the New Nevada economy,” said Gov. Sandoval. “The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has been closely monitoring the advancements being made in autonomous vehicle development and reviewed DTNA’s safety, testing and training plans before granting permission for this demonstration of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck.”

Freightliner Inspiration Truck: Revolutionary technology will be tested on public roads
The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is based on the series-produced US Freightliner Cascadia Evolution model, but with the addition of the Highway Pilot technology. The latter comprises a front radar and a stereo camera plus tried-and-tested assistance systems such as the Adaptive Cruise Control+, as seen in the Mercedes-Benz Actros. For licensing on public roads in Nevada, the technology was further developed and the excellent interaction of components extensively tested. As part of the truck´s so-called Marathon Run, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck covered over 10,000 miles (over 16,000 kilometers) on a test circuit in Germany.
“The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is all about more sustainable transport, for the benefit of the economy, society and consumers alike. It remains our goal to be in a position to offer the Highway Pilot in series-produced vehicles from the middle of the coming decade. With licensing for road use in the USA we have reached an important milestone in autonomous truck driving,” emphasizes Martin Daum, President and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA).
“Daimler Trucks is actively urging dialogue with politicians, authorities and all other parties involved. Our next goal is to test the Highway Pilot technology on public roads in Germany too. Preparations are already under way”, Dr. Bernhard adds.
Initial research findings of Daimler Trucks clearly show autonomous driving relieves the strain of truck drivers
The Highway Pilot technology from Daimler Trucks demonstrably leads to more concentrated and thus more efficient long-haul truck drivers. This is a result of studies conducted on a cordoned-off test route during the pilot stage of the technology. Measurements of the probands´ brain currents (EEG) demonstrated that driver drowsiness decreases by about 25% when the truck is being operated in autonomous mode, and the driver all the while pursuing other meaningful operations. The studies also prove a high acceptance of the Highway Pilot technology and a rapid adaption phase of the probands. Relieving strains of the driver through autonomous truck driving leads to more road safety.