We are seeing the first fruits of autonomous driving technology in the personal vehicle market, but other segments of the transportation industry are similarly preparing for disruption by autonomous driving technology. Heavy trucks are the backbone of the shipping industry in many countries, and due to their size and mass, are consequently involved in the majority of traffic accident fatalities.
As many heavy-truck routes are fixed, predictable routes with a majority of the driving time being freeway driving, they make a great case study for being switched over to autonomous driving. The folks over at Foro Coches Electricos unpacked the latest chapter in a heavy-truck project called Future Truck being explored by a trio of vehicle manufacturers — Mercedes, Volvo, and Scania.
These 3 manufacturers are touring some of the largest autonomous vehicles on any road in the world out onto the freeway to drive themselves. What!? As with personal vehicles, bringing autonomous driving technology into the world of heavy trucks is expected to bring improvements in safety, but also improvements in efficiency. Neither car accidents or inefficiency add any value to the products being transported, so improving the overall fuel efficiency and safety of heavy trucks is a win all around. Nobody likes paying more for goods, so yeah, this is huge. On top of that, traffic accidents harm real people, so cutting those down drive up the quality of life and life expectancy, which may be one of the largest benefits of this tech.
The test track, if you will, is a 600 kilometer / 373 mile stretch of highway between the German city of Stuttgart and the Dutch city of Rotterdam that allows the manufacturers to try out their new and creative autonomous driving tech for big rigs. Driving out on the highway obviously requires more controls and safety features than on a test track, but on the flip side, provides REAL data that is much more valuable than data from a simulator or from a test track.
The benefits from autonomous driving tech make a strong case for the technology itself beyond just the safety improvements (which are significant in and of themselves!). Efficiency improvements come from a more moderated, stable, predictive pace, but more importantly, autonomous vehicles can caravan together with a minimal gap between them. This effectively creates a train of trucks, carving their way through a single tunnel of air once vs requiring each truck to cut through the air on their own.
Leaning forward to the future, one can easily imagine these trucks creating a single caravan on a dedicated lane — perhaps even one physically segregated from passenger traffic for extra safety and higher speeds — with the entire slug of trucks aerodynamically optimized for efficiency and time depending on the collective priority of the pack. The Future Truck program has already proven out a 10% improvement in efficiency with current tech … with future tech easily stretching beyond that.
Beyond safety and efficiency, the real win that carriers are likely eyeballing is a driverless future simply to save the money that goes to the driver. Not having to pay a driver allows carriers to optimize routes based on other factors, as the a key driver behind the LARGE loads in trucks today is simply the cost of transporting each load. Automating transport will lead to smaller, more frequent loads … safer highways … cheaper transportation.
Cutting out the jobs of all those truck drivers on roads around the world is not a popular topic, but the reality is just around the corner. It’s time to look towards that future and map out paths to transition towards the future, because with the sheer number of benefits that come with a transition to autonomous freight, it’s all but a done deal. There is simply too much money, safety, and flexibility on the line not to do it.
Images courtesy Daimler
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