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Autonomous Trucks – Part 2 – The Technologies and the Players

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In last week’s blog, I outlined the market forces driving the launch of autonomous trucks; this blog will focus on the emerging technologies and companies that are shaping this big change in trucking. They include:

• Retrofit Kits for Existing Fleets

• Autonomous Trucks

• Automated Last Mile Delivery Services

• Platooning and Guided Highways

It should be noted that autonomous does not necessarily mean “driverless.” There’s a difference between eliminating human error and removing humans from truck cabs. The technologies outlined below may not displace the truck driver in all situations. However, they do change the discussion around hours of service and the role the driver plays in operating the vehicle. With that in mind, here is an overview of these technologies.

Retrofit Kits for Existing Fleets

Otto, a U.S. start-up owned by Uber, that has ex-Google, Apple and Tesla employees working for it, has developed a kit that can equip existing trucks on the road. "We are developing a suite of sensors, software and truck enhancements coming together in a product that can be quickly outfitted on existing trucks," Otto co-founders Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, wrote in a blog post. Otto said that it is testing the technology on highways and it recently completed an autonomous demo on a public highway.

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Otto envisions drivers that can put their trucks in "cruising" mode, as they call it, and technically go off duty, getting some sleep in the berth behind the driver's seat; the truck could drive itself for hours—with the driver still collecting the usual rate per mile. But for now, drivers are still needed — not only to oversee the driving, but for all the things that happen either side of onramps and off-ramps, like the city driving and logistics, the docking and parking and weighing and so forth. These trucks would be automated but not “driverless.” Uber plans to develop an app, similar to their taxi app, to facilitate the communication between companies with capacity and shippers with freight to move.

Autonomous Trucks

Semi-automated Self Driving Trucks (“saSDTs”) are those capable of automated driving under supervision and under limited circumstances like driving long distances on an interstate. Fully automated Self Driving Trucks (“faSDTs”) are those that can leave the truck terminal and travel to a destination without human intervention or presence in the truck cab. While some manufacturers may start with semi-automated vehicles, it is likely that all truck manufacturers will try to move as quickly as they can towards saSDTs/faSDTs. There are a host of companies testing technologies in this space. They include Daimler, Volvo, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Google’s Waymo division.

Embark, a startup based in San Mateo, California, recently featured in Transport Topics, is working to build self-driving technology that would allow trucks to run on highways with no human input. CEO and co-founder Alex Rodrigues said Embark’s goal is not simply to assist drivers, but to enable completely unmanned trucks to travel on highways, from exit to exit, while continuing to rely on humans for city driving.

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Embark’s system uses onboard radar, cameras and lidar sensors in conjunction with military-grade GPS to monitor the truck’s environment and track its position. Self-driving software processes that information using a form of artificial intelligence that allows the truck to learn from its own experience, the company said. Embark’s vision for driverless trucks differs from the technology concepts espoused by truck manufacturers, which have been demonstrating driver-assist technologies that help rather than replace the human operator.

Automated Last Mile Delivery Services

Some companies are looking at incorporating last-mile solutions into the automated shipping industry by literally bringing items to your door: Google just patented a concept for a driverless truck that delivers items to your door, and a company called Starship developed a scooter-sized delivery bot, theoretically deployed from a smart truck, that rides down the sidewalk to deliver your packages.

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Platooning and Guided Highways

One approach being examined is “platooning” that would enable a number of trucks to travel along a highway together, all controlled by the first vehicle. It requires development of a new technology called “lane-keeping” that is under development. The challenge at this point comes when the lead truck needs to change lanes on the highway. The trucks following behind must then have drivers fully engaged to perform the lane change. Silicon Valley firm Peloton Technologies has developed advanced platooning software, which lets trucks “link” up in lines while on the highway.

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Today, almost all commercial cargo moving less than 500 miles is transported by truck. Cargo trucks share public roads with private vehicles. The volume of cargo traffic and private vehicle traffic in many areas has grown faster than the public road infrastructure. Truck traffic over congested public roads contributes to major economic challenges for businesses and cost to the taxpayer.

The Freight Shuttle System (FSS) concept was initiated at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute for the purposes of finding a low-emissions alternative to moving freight and relieving congestion created by trucks in heavy freight corridors. FSS moves truck trailers up to 53 ft., domestic intermodal containers up to 53 ft., and all sizes of ocean shipping containers via emissions-free, electric-powered transporters on elevated guideways in the medians of highways or other rights-of-way over distances of up to 500 miles. It has been designed to integrate into today’s intermodal network. The Freight Shuttle System is currently focusing on high volume locations, such as the I-35 corridor in Texas. They are working on cross-border projects in El Paso and Laredo. These shuttles can be operated 24/7 without drivers.

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Clearly autonomous trucks is a very “hot” area with great potential for saving truckers billions of dollars in operating expenses in the years ahead as these technologies gain adoption.  As we can see, there are a number of technologies and servcies that are being developed to address these opportunities.

To stay up to date on Best Practices in Freight Management, follow me on Twitter @DanGoodwill, join the Freight Management Best Practices group on LinkedIn and subscribe to Dan's Transportation Newspaper (http://paper.li/DanGoodwill/1342211466).

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