From Unmanned Systems Magazine: Automated trucks gain traction



When it comes to self-driving vehicles, cars seem to get most of the publicity but many new and established players are seeking to transform commercial trucking by developing automation technology that helps or removes the driver.

Companies have equipped trucks with various sensors, software, tracking devices and wireless communications gear and are testing their souped-up vehicles on real roads, sometimes with customer freight onboard. 

According to proponents of such efforts, autonomous trucking offers many benefits, including increased safety. In the United States, about 4,000 people a year die in truck accidents, most of which are caused by human error.

Driverless trucks could also save money and boost productivity.

Self-driving trucks could ease a driver shortage caused by an aging workforce and difficulty attracting young people to the field, especially for long-haul routes that are monotonous and require long periods of time away from home. The U.S. shortage is currently 63,000 drivers and is expected to reach 174,000 by 2026, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

“Truck drivers are, on average, about seven years older than the typical American worker,” McKinsey wrote in a recent article. “As they retire, they are not being replaced. Younger generations are opting for less-demanding careers in other industries.”

Drivers are currently one of the main costs for trucking firms. And unlike human drivers, driverless vehicles do not need rest breaks.

But according to analysts, several hurdles must be overcome before autonomous vehicle can become common in the $700-billion-a-year U.S. trucking industry. Among them is proving the technology works beyond highly controlled conditions in remote areas.

Other issues that need to be resolved include who will be liable in a crash and whether insurance companies will cover autonomous trucks; how state roadside inspection stations will inspect such vehicles; how law enforcement will communicate with such vehicles; who will maintain and update the technology and troubleshoot problems that drivers currently handle on the road; and how trucks will be protected against cyberattacks.

For cybersecurity, “the concern is that someone could hijack a load without even touching the vehicle,” said Martin Walker, senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and former research chief at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Some motor carriers are also wrestling without how to pursue automation without alienating their drivers, many of whom fear technology will eventually put them out of work, Walker said. 

In a March report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote that a lack of consensus exists on how automated trucking will affect the nation’s nearly 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. Automation advocates say the technology will create new, better jobs, such as calibrating sensors and remotely monitoring trucks.

Stakeholders the GAO interviewed “generally indicated that it will be years to decades before the widespread deployment of automated commercial trucks,” the GAO said. By that time, many current drivers will have retired or moved on to other jobs.

Automotive industry consultant Richard Bishop expects driverless deployments to start small, in remote sections of interstate highways in good weather, before gradually expanding to more complex environments. He estimates it will take 10 to 20 years for self-driving trucks to become prevalent.

“I could imagine that maybe by 2030, it is not unusual to see one on the road, but it’s still the exception,” Bishop said. “It could go faster if all the stars line up perfectly so there are zero crashes and the robustness is convincing to all the stakeholders, the public and government.”

While some states, such as Arizona, Florida and Texas, have embraced autonomous trucks, others are more hesitant. Susan Beardslee, a transportation analyst at ABI Research, said national legislation will ultimately be needed to address differing state laws and create uniform rules.

Daimler’s Cascadia system includes numerous driver assist technologies. Photo: Daimler
Daimler’s Cascadia system includes numerous driver assist technologies. Photo: Daimler
Driver assistance
Among the developers of driver-assist technology is Peloton Technology, whose PlatoonPro system uses vehicle-to-vehicle communications to electronically couple two trucks, allowing them to accelerate and brake together and safely operate at close distances from each other. This tight pairing alters air flow around the vehicles, reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency.

Peloton said its product cuts fuel usage by about 7.25 percent – 4.5 percent for the lead truck and 10 percent for the following truck. The platooning hardware costs about $5,000 per truck and pays for itself in about a year, said Rod McLane, vice president of marketing at the Mountain View, California-based firm.

PlatoonPro is best suited for highways, where the trucks can maintain a steady speed. Peloton, which is testing the product in California and Texas, has more than a dozen trucks of its own and is also operating vehicles provided by its fleet partners.

“We literally have trucks on the road every day,” McLane said. “In five years, we hope to have a good swath of trucks that are platooning on the highway [and] leveraging this technology.”

McLane said platooning makes more sense with two trucks than three or more, partly because it is easier to schedule and dispatch a pair at a time.

“And then there’s always the public perception issue,” McLane said. “The general public is less likely to be concerned with a pair of trucks rolling down the highway as opposed to the road train of three, four or five trucks, which is potentially prohibiting them from getting over to an exit lane.”

Not everyone is sold on platooning. Daimler Trucks North America, based in Portland, Oregon, says it tested platooning for several years and found “no business case” for its customers.

“Results show that fuel savings, even in perfect platooning conditions, are less than expected and that those savings are further diminished when the platoon gets disconnected and the trucks must accelerate to reconnect,” Daimler said.

Daimler is focusing on other automation efforts. In January, for example, it introduced the new Freightliner Cascadia truck, which can automatically accelerate and decelerate to maintain a safe following distance, steer the vehicle back into its lane if it drifts without engaging a turn signal, and brake to avoid a collision.

“Automating acceleration, deceleration and steering reduces the chance for human error, mitigates collisions and can potentially save lives,” Daimler said. “These technologies can also enhance the driver experience by making the truck-driving task easier, thereby improving driver comfort and well-being.”

Daimler plans to begin delivering the Cascadia to customers in September.

Tesla is developing the Semi tractor-trailer, whose Enhanced Autopilot is supposed to help the driver avoid collisions by providing automatic emergency braking, automatic lane keeping, lane departure warning and event recording. Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled the electric truck at an event in November 2017.

“Jack-knifing is prevented due to the Semi's onboard sensors that detect instability and react with positive or negative torque to each wheel while independently actuating all brakes,” Tesla says. “The surround cameras aid object detection and minimize blind spots, automatically alerting the driver to safety hazards and obstacles.”
Driverless trucks
Developers of driverless truck technology are taking several approaches. For example, TuSimple’s “depot to depot” system is designed to allow trucks to operate autonomously on long highway trips, as well as to and from distribution centers that are near the highway.

TuSimple, a startup based in Beijing and San Diego, has been testing self-driving trucks in Arizona for more than two years. As of mid-April, TuSimple had a total of 22 trucks – 11 in China and 11 in the United States — and was aiming to boost its fleet to 50 trucks by June.

With 50 trucks running every day, “we will start accumulating … one million testing miles every single month,” said Vivian Sun, the firm’s head of business development. “That’s a big milestone for us. The mileage is going to be snowballing, and we will be much faster in accumulating all kinds of scenarios and test miles.”

While its trucks currently have a test driver who can intervene if a problem arises, TuSimple aims to provide the option for fully autonomous driving by the end of 2020, Sun said. At that point, customers will decide whether they are comfortable with removing the driver.

While Starsky Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup, is also testing driverless trucks on highways, it uses human “tele-operators” to remotely control the vehicles when they are off the highway and heading to or from a warehouse. 

"We are developing a system that combines what humans are best at with what robots are best at,” said Kameron Simmons, Starsky’s director of public policy. “That human decision-making skill is really valuable for chaotic, context-heavy environments as soon as you get off the highway. On these long stretches of rural interstate where we’re not encountering a lot of difficult, context-based driving scenarios, [that] is where automation works best.”

The tele-operator’s workspace has a steering wheel, pedals, cameras and a seat to replicate the feel of driving in a truck. Currently, each tele-operator is assigned one truck, but as Starsky’s technology improves, a single person could eventually control two, three or more trucks.

“We’ll have to see what makes the most sense from a safety perspective,” Simmons said.

Starsky currently has three trucks operating with safety drivers on interstates in Florida and Texas. As it fields its technology on more trucks, it expects many experienced drivers to become tele-operators, which will keep them employed while allowing them to work closer to home. 

Some companies want to go even further with automation. Sweden-based Volvo Trucks is developing Vera, a cab-less electric tractor that would tow cargo-filled trailers. A control center would monitor each Vera.

Vera would be ideal in “highly repetitive, short-distance transport flows, with large volumes of goods, such as ports, factory areas and logistic mega-centers,” a Volvo video says.
Einride, a Swedish startup, is developing two cabless electric trucks – the freight-hauling T-pod and the log-carrying T-log. 

“The driver’s cab is what makes trucks expensive to produce and having a driver in the cabin is what makes them expensive to operate,” Einride chief executive officer Robert Falck said in a press release. “Remove the cabin and replace the driver with an operator who can monitor and remote-control several vehicles at once and costs can be reduced significantly.”

Above: Volvo Truck’s Vera, a tractor with no cab. Photo: Volvo Below: Starsky Robotics wants to make trucks self-driving on the highway and remote-controlled by people when they are off the highway. Photo: Starsky Robotics

Starsky Robotics wants to make trucks self-driving on the highway and remote-controlled by people when they are off the highway. Photo: Starsky Robotics