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The Supply Chain Management Blog covers the latest in SCM strategy, technology, and innovation.

3 Steps to Fully-autonomous Trucks

Evelyn Mei
Senior Product Strategy Manager

Human driven cars will disappear from local streets and freeways within 50 years, SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son said last month. "In less than 50 years, people will no longer be allowed to drive by themselves in the city or on expressways unless they have a special license."

A scene that has appeared in countless science fiction movies might become reality sooner than we imagined:

  • $80 billion has been invested in autonomous vehicle technology over the past 3 years
  • 55 companies are currently registered to test self-driving vehicles in California (as of Jul 20, 2018)
  • 20.8 million autonomous vehicles will be in operation in the U.S. by 2030 according to latest prediction

Most major automakers are already part of the game, making heavy investments into self-driving technology through in-house development, partnerships and acquisitions. Technology companies – large and small – have also adopted various approaches to self-driving solutions aimed at achieving different levels of automation.

Several companies have focused on bringing this technology to the commercial trucking industry and made tremendous progress there. Below is an overview of 3 major types of applications, differentiated by use case and stage of development:

 

1.Self-driving in Confined Areas 

Current status: In Operation

Private roads, mines, quarries, ports and other confined areas where vehicles operate routinely and free of unexpected pedestrians are ideal places for testing and implementing vehicle autonomy. The mining industry is pioneering this technology:

  • In 2015, Rio Tinto rolled out 2 fleets of fully automated driverless trucks at iron ore mines in Western Australia. Until March 2018, Rio Tinto had more than 80 autonomous trucks in operation, and plans on increasing the number of driverless trucks to more than 140 by the end of 2019.
  • In 2016, Volvo tested the world's first self-driving truck in an underground mine. Watch the video.

Benefit: Mines are full of hazards, so reducing the number of drivers in the mines is not only a cost-saving strategy but also a safety measure.

 

2.Platooning on Highways

Current status: Testing and R&D

Source: European Automobile Manufacturers Association

According to European Automobile Manufacturers Association, truck platooning is the linking of two or more trucks in a convoy. These vehicles automatically maintain a set, close distance between each other – requiring little to no action from drivers in the trailing vehicle.

In the Platooning Roadmap, the association defined 4 steps to realizing truck platooning:

Step 1: Mono-brand platooning

Platooning requires advanced vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity technology. Therefore, starting with trucks of the same brand could be relatively easier.

In July 2018,  Volvo Trucks performed an on-highway demonstration of a three-truck platoon made up of Volvo VNL tractors and 28-foot twin trailers in Raleigh, North Carolina. Using wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology and cruise control, braking and acceleration of the two trailing vehicles were done by computer while steering was still controlled by human. The second and third truck were able to maintain a following distance of 1.5 seconds apart — about 120 feet at 60 mph. Watch the video.

Step 2: Multi-brand platooning

Commercial fleets will need to be able to platoon with trucks of different brands, so the next step is to develop multi-brand platooning. At this moment, we are not able to find any demonstration of this technology.

Multi-brand platooning requires standardization of communication protocols. Drivers will still be present in all trucks and ready to intervene.

Step 3: Driver of a trailing truck can rest

In this stage, a driver is only present in the first truck of a platooning group, other trucks in the group follow closely and are steered automatically.

Step 4: Full Autonomous trucks

No driver is needed, even in the lead truck. We will discuss this further in the next section.

Benefit: platooning helps improve fuel economy. Trucks that follow closely together set up air flows that help to 'push' both trucks forward. It can reduce air drag, increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

 

3.Fully-autonomous trucks on highways and roads 

Current status: Under R&D

Step 1: Fully-autonomous trucks on certain highways

In the first phase, due to limitations in technology and legislation, it is very likely that fully-autonomous trucks will only be allowed on certain roads, such as highways. Human drivers are still needed to take trucks through restricted areas. There are 2 possible scenarios:

  1. Dedicated driver. A driver stays in a truck at all times. He/she can rest while the truck drives itself on highways. When it’s time to get off the highway, the driver takes over the control.
  2. On-demand driver.  Drivers are only present when trucks go through restricted areas. Once they leave such an area, drivers onboard can get off the trucks. Then they can wait there for the next incoming trucks and steer them into the area. The matching between available drivers and trucks might be done using an advanced Transportation Management System. Such a system should be able to coordinate pickup and drop-off locations and timing.

Step 2: Fully-autonomous trucks on all roads

The eventual goal is to have all roads currently allowing trucks to also allow fully-autonomous trucks. If we can get there, it will significantly reduce the driver shortage problem that has been aggravating the industry over the years. Furthermore, since we don’t need to account for the time when drivers take breaks, have meals or go home, autonomous trucks can operate 24/7.  When these trucks are connected with automated warehouses and coordinated by intelligent Transportation Management System and Warehouse Management System, many more opportunities will open up for the future of Logistics Management.

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