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The driverless vehicle debate revolves primarily around autonomous cars, piloted by top tech companies such as Google and Tesla. But what about driverless trucks?
Truckmakers and logistics companies are salivating at the potential gains to be had by introducing automation into road-going freight transport.
“Maybe it’s not as eye-catching as a person reading his newspaper behind the wheel of a passenger car,” says Niklas Gustafsson, chief sustainability officer at Volvo Group, the Swedish truckmaker.
“But in the trucks business . . . the reason for automation is maybe not so much for the driver. It’s more about trucks in platoons saving a lot of fuel.”
Fuel consumption represents about a third of the running costs for road hauliers. Driverless heavy duty trucks offer the potential for “platooning”, whereby trucks travel in convoy at very close distances behind one another. That could mean a saving of as much as 20 per cent on fuel costs thanks to aerodynamics, says Mr Gustafsson.
Driverless trucks have so far been successfully employed in specific areas — for example around mines or in container ports.
Road-going trucks are already benefiting from semi-autonomous safety features. For example, all new trucks sold in Europe since November must by law be fitted with autonomous emergency braking. Other features, such as MAN’s lane guard system, keep drivers within their lanes and warn truckers if they are veering off course.
Several truckmakers, including Volvo, MAN and Scania, offer advanced intelligent gearboxes that use GPS to spot when a hill is approaching and help drivers know when to accelerate and when to coast to limit fuel consumption.
Further moves are being made towards full automation. Daimler of Germany this year revealed the first self-driving truck to be licensed for commercial use. Trials of platooning are also set to take place in the Netherlands early next year.
The rewards go beyond fuel consumption. Autonomous commercial vehicles would, for instance, be better at maintaining the concentration that can fail human truckers on long-haul and routine journeys, while avoiding fatigue.
“The system never gets tired,” Wolfgang Bernhard told the FT this year speaking at the launch of its Freightliner truck. “It never gets distracted. It’s always at 100 per cent.”
Some say it would be possible to designate lanes on long highways to autonomous vehicles — effectively moving road transport into the realms of computer-assisted transport employed in the air and on the rails.
“If there were dedicated lanes on the roads, this automated technology would be introduced even faster,” says Mr Gustafsson.
But, as with driverless cars, regulation needs to be resolved before autonomous trucks head on to the highway.
Platooning, for instance, is technically possible using radar-based adaptive cruise control — a technology that effectively tracks the car in front.
But in countries such as Germany, legislation says that trucks have to keep a safe distance of 50m from the lorry in front — and that is too great a gap to achieve aerodynamic gains.
The regulation issue is more acute for trucks, analysts say, since they tend to drive long distances across national borders and between jurisdictions.
As such, Frost & Sullivan, the consultancy, believes that while autonomous highway driving in passenger cars is due to become mainstream by 2020, driverless trucks will not be introduced for platooning until closer to 2022.
There is also the question of business models. “In a platooning train, the first truck and the last truck will carry the load,” in terms of air resistance, says Mr Gustafsson. “So you need to find a business model for sharing the costs for the first and last truck.”
Truckmakers also say hauliers will be reluctant to truly embrace autonomous commercial vehicles until the trucker is able to fully disengage from driving in transit and perform tasks, such as processing cargo.
“[Until then], this is no business case for any customer,” says Manuel Hiermeyer at Volkswagen Truck & Bus, the holding company for MAN and Scania. “When the driver is still behind the wheel, he is not able to take on other duties.
“Only in the next step, where a driver is not required during a defined use — such as the highway — then there is a business case.”
But that in turn raises the question as to whether truckers will want to carry out functions other than driving. “Personally, I do not see that they want to do logistics with an iPad,” says Mr Hiermeyer.