autonomous Solution Where are the autonomous trucks?
As the demand for cargo increases, traditional providers have had to develop innovative ways to respond to the challenge at a time when the transport industry is facing a shortage of truck drivers. In response, autonomous trucks are emerging as a potential solution with a variety of different solutions from remote controlled driving to platooning.
Never has the need for trucks been more evident than during COVID-19, where they carried critical supplies, food, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and other resources on roads and highways across the globe. But trucking as an industry is changing in response to an envisioned shortage of drivers in the future.
Last year research by the American Trucking Association found the industry needed 60,800 more drivers at the end of 2018 to meet the country's demands for freight services. They predicted that the industry could be short over 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028. Similarly, research in Europe by the IRU finds that the European supply of drivers currently meets an employment demand of 79 percent, leaving a visible driver shortage of 21 percent, or a fifth of available positions. For example, the average age in the German transport sector is over 47. Some 40 percent of truck drivers are expected to retire by 2027, creating a shortfall of around 185,000 drivers.
Are autonomous trucks the future of long-distance transport?
The answer is yes, and no. As with autonomous cars, the levels of automation for trucks exist on a spectrum. To refresh your memory about the five levels of autonomous cars, read our article on the topic here.
And for a quick recap, see how Break Through details the range for autonomous trucking levels below:
- Level 1: Driver Assistance—one function controlled automatically (i.e. cruise control).
- Level 2: Partial Automation—both steering and acceleration/deceleration are automated, with the driver ready to take vehicle control.
- Level 3: Conditional Automation—all safety-critical functions are automated, but the driver is present for certain traffic and environmental conditions.
- Level 4: High Automation— automated to perform all safety-critical functions and roadway conditions for a full trip (driver still present).
- Level 5: Full Automation—expected to perform equal to a human driver, in all scenarios and conditions (driver not present).
In turns of capability, autonomous trucks have existed for some time. The military has long been involved in truck automation. Caterpillar deployed the first six commercial autonomous trucks in 2013. The difference varies as to the level of automation, which primarily sits between Level 1 and 4 not dissimilar to autonomous vehicles. While Level 5 may be the aim, the industry is mainly working towards Level 4, where trucks possess a high degree of automation but are also operated remotely by a truck driver. It's anticipated that, legally, autonomous trucks will hit the road commercially earlier than autonomous vehicles.
Currently, a lot of the focus is on long haul driving, including a hub to hub model where driving is done autonomously on highways between hubs with the first and last mile done by local drivers.
Autonomous Trucks offer compelling efficiency
One of the key focuses of Level 4 is safety with an autonomously driven as an alternative to a tired or distracted driver. An automated truck doesn't need to rest and thus increase proficiency and productivity with cargo delivered faster to the desired location—significant as the demands of cargo deliveries increase. This new breed of trucks is not only smarter but more environmentally friendly—those developing electric trucks also have the potential to reduce CO2-emissions significantly.
A competitive industry with plenty of players
The autonomous trucking industry is a mix between old industry stalwarts like Volvo and Daimler and newcomers offered a variety of solutions:
In 2014, Daimler Trucks presented the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, the world's first automated truck.
In 2015, Daimler's Freightliner Inspiration Truck obtained the first-ever road license for a partially automated commercial vehicle. It premiered of the Mercedes-Benz Actros with Highway Pilot took place on public roads. Unlike systems that only work within a specific speed range, Active Drive Assist gives the driver access to semi-automated driving at all speeds for the first time in a series production truck. New features include active lateral control and the combination of longitudinal and lateral control at all speed ranges by combining radar and camera information
Active Drive Assist builds on previously lane-keeping and proximity control systems—it brakes if the truck gets too close to a vehicle driving in front and accelerates again until a set speed is reached. It also actively keeps the vehicle in the lane. If the vehicle is leaving its lane unintentionally, Active Drive Assist intervenes and independently steers the vehicle back into its lane.
In Sweden, Einride AB has created vehicles they call Einride pods. The pods are electric trucks remotely controlled by drivers and are made without a driver's cab.
The company recently announced its intention to hire it's first remote autonomous truck operator, making truck driving an entirely new role. They assert the operator will be responsible for remote control driving of the Einride Pod, and training will incorporate safety and security protocols, basic remote driving instruction, and an extensive understanding of the technology behind the system. Multiple vehicles can be operated by one operator, monitoring them when in autonomous mode and taking active control of a vehicle for unforeseen or more complicated maneuvers, such as parking at a loading dock.
In November 2018, the company installed an autonomous, all-electric truck or pod at a DB Schenker facility in Jönköping, Sweden. It was the first commercial installation of its kind in the world. Last, the Swedish Transport Agency concluded that the Einride pod can operate under Swedish traffic regulations, and later approved Einride's application to expand the pilot to a public road. The permit applies to a public road within an industrial area—between a warehouse and a terminal. The permit is valid until December 31, 2020.
Einride and DB Schenker entered into a commercial agreement in April 2018 that includes the pilot in Jönköping and an option for additional pilots internationally.
In terms of autonomous truck startups, key players include Embark, Plus.ai, and TuSimple, and Waymo. The vehicles are embedded with a range of sensing technologies, including radars, LiDARs, and cameras, to "see" 360 degrees around the vehicle. The self-driving trucks can also track vehicles one mile (or 1,600 meters) away. There's been a lot of work at stealth and plenty of funding.
Last year Embark opened the first cargo transfer hubs for its fleet of robotic semis, highway-adjacent facilities where its automated trucks can pick up trailers hauled from nearby cargo distribution centers.
TuSimple has a fleet of over 50 autonomous trucks and delivers freight for revenue every- day for customers such as UPS, The United States Postal Service, and McLane Company. Last month they announced a partnership with ZF, a leading automotive supplier, to develop and commercialize the technology for autonomous trucks. The partnership covers the world's largest markets, including North America, Europe, and China.
Waymo recently announced the testing of its self-driving trucks in Phoenix.
Another interesting idea that has emerged is platooning. The ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association) describes truck platooning as the linking of two or more trucks in convoy, using connectivity technology and automated driving support systems.
These vehicles automatically maintain a set, close distance between each other when they are connected for certain parts of a journey, for instance, on motorways. The truck at the head of the platoon acts as the leader. The vehicles behind react and adapt to changes in the leader's movement. This requires little to no action from drivers. In the first instance, drivers will remain in control at all times, so they can also decide to leave the platoon and drive independently.
The benefits of platooning are lower fuel consumption and Co2 emissions, delivering goods faster, and reducing traffic jams. It allows drivers to undertake other tasks, such as administrative work or making calls.
Daimler has been exploring platooning technology since at least 2017, during which it conducted tests on public highways in Oregon an
d Nevada. Startup Locomation is creating a trucking technology platform that combines AI-driven autonomy with driver augmentation.
The elephant in the room when it comes to autonomous trucks will be public acceptance. The ACEA predicts that significant testing is required and that market introduction of this technology will require permission to drive platoons on motorways across the EU, without needing any specific exemptions. Last year, Chris Spear, the president of the American Trucking Association, said it would be 20 to 25 years before fully autonomous commercial trucks are mainstream.