We've got a mighty convoy: how driverless trucks will one day rule the road

Truck manufacturers are testing autonomous trucks and platooning, where trucks travel in a convoy controlled by smart technology. The potential benefits of minimizing cost and time on transportation are obvious, but there are legislative challenges to overcome.

In May 2015, Daimler’s Inspiration, an 18-wheel autonomous big rig, became the first road-approved truck for autonomous operation when the US state of Nevada granted it a license – putting self-driving trucks firmly on the radar.

Since the Inspiration made its debut, everyone from long-haul freight to courier and garbage collection companies, as well as the military, are looking to autonomous vehicles for potential increases in supply chain efficiency, cost reduction, to address truck driver shortages and to improve road safety.

Uber, for example, has made no secret that it would like a share of the lucrative freight market. Long-haul trucks are responsible for delivering nearly 70 percent of goods in the US alone, with a market worth over $700 billion. Last year Uber acquired autonomous truck technology company Otto and also reached a trucking milestone – using autonomous technology to deliver a trailer of Budweiser along a 120 mile route in Colorado.

Google has also noticed the market potential. The company’s self-driving car team at parent company Alphabet’s Waymo has added trucks to its fleet of autonomous test vehicles. It is scheduled to start testing the trucks in Arizona later in 2017.

Driverless trash trucks

It isn’t just freight carrying that is garnering interest. Volvo, together with Swedish waste and recycling specialist Renova, is testing driverless garbage collection trucks in urban environments. The duo are looking at how automation can contribute to a lower environmental impact, improved working conditions and enhanced traffic safety. 

In addition, the US military is testing autonomous trucks, with the hope of reducing exposure of army personnel in times of combat. It is currently testing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure radio communications in Michigan.

Legislation, however, has to catch up to make autonomous trucking common place and this may take time. Traffic laws in many regions of the world are currently presided over by the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic or its predecessor the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. A recent amendment to the Vienna Convention allows for autonomous vehicles as long as a manual override is available. The US and the UK did not sign and ratify the Geneva Convention, which arguably gives them more scope when it comes to driverless vehicles. Hence, the US Department of Transportation is jumping ahead with guidelines on autonomous trucks, expected later this year.   

Follow my leader
Truck platoons are likely to be the first major application of autonomous trucks, with the promise of greater fuel efficiency and emissions reductions as a benefit.

Truck platooning comprises a number of trucks equipped with state-of-the-art connectivity and driving support systems.  A driver in the lead vehicle of each convoy dictates the speed and the route. The trucks follow automatically behind.

The reduction in aerodynamic drag for the vehicles traveling behind the lead truck can yield fuel efficiencies of up to 10 percent. With most fleet operators putting around 30-40 percent of haulage costs down to fuel, this is a very significant saving according to ABI Research, which predicts that 7.7 million truck platoon systems will ship by 2025.  The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) expects platooning to be a common sight on European roads by 2023.

Last year, six platoons of autonomous trucks made by six of Europe’s largest manufacturers, representing DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo, carried out a cross-border pilot, finishing up at Rotterdam harbor. Although automated, the smart trucks were required to have drivers on board to ensure safety should connectivity breakdown for example.

Cross-border platooning, however, still has a couple of significant hurdles to overcome – notably a lack of standardized regulations across countries through which platoons may travel and lack of de facto communications standards between different manufacturers’ trucks.

Off-road first

Driverless trucks are already hard at work, off-road in mines. Rio Tinto mines in Western Australia has driverless trucks operating 24/7, remote controlled by workers 1,200 kilometers away in Perth. But there are some extensive legal issues to overcome before we see driverless rigs replacing the trucker on public highways anytime soon.

The self-driving, always-connected vehicle is becoming the technology battleground of the decade. Driverless vehicles promise to make us more productive, educated and healthier. Eventually, they will transform the urban landscape. Read more here.

Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.