Highway at night

If these cars are being operated by software systems and communicating wirelessly, there is a possibility that these controls can be hacked or tampered with.

A world in which massive trucks travel down the highway with no one in the driver’s seat seems like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it is much closer to reality than people may think. While fully driverless trucks may still be several decades in the future, many lower levels of automation are already in use.

The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies levels of automation in six levels. The levels range from Level 0 to Level 5, with each level containing increasing levels of automation. Levels 3, 4 and 5 do not require the driver to be constantly looking at the road. Levels 4 and 5 do not even require a person to be present in the driver’s seat.

In addition to driving functions, autonomous vehicles are capable of communicating with other vehicles and infrastructure, including smart roads, bridges and traffic signs. This allows vehicles to be aware of other cars, pedestrians and road hazards before the vehicle can detect them. The advanced warning helps avoid crashes and reduce congestion on roads.

An early use of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication is platooning technology. Linked through V2V communication, trucks drive in teams of two or more. The braking and acceleration of trailing trucks are controlled by the lead truck. Because reaction time is no longer a factor when braking, the trucks are able to follow at a much closer distance. The close following distance reduces drag and fuel used, and the connected braking and acceleration reduces driver fatigue in the following trucks.

Major Manufacturers Developing Autonomous Technology

Due to the potential for massive cost savings, many large trucking companies are pursuing this technology at a frenetic pace. Paccar, Daimler and Volvo, which are the three major manufacturers accounting for 90 percent of the market share for trucks in the United States, are all working to develop an autonomous version of their commercial trucks.

Paccar, which currently possesses 18 percent of the US market share for commercial trucks, recently announced a partnership with Nvidia. Nvidia is a Silicon Valley company that specializes in graphic chips, and they have used that technology to start an autonomous division. This partnership confirms that Paccar is also pushing to develop a self-driving version of their trucks. Paccar has announced that they have developed a Level 4 prototype using Nvidia’s autonomous vehicle software, called Drive PX.

Volvo, which currently holds 20 percent of the market share for US trucks, is also working on developing autonomous vehicle and platoon technologies. The company is currently testing autonomous commercial trucks, as well as self-driving garbage trucks in Europe. They are also working to develop platooning technology, and have already sent a platoon of trucks from Stuttgart to Rotterdam as a part of the European Truck Platooning Challenge.

German auto group Daimler is currently working on developing the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, a self-driving version of their popular Freightliner truck. It has Level 4 automation, and two working prototypes are being tested on public roads in Nevada. Per state law, a driver is still required to be in the driver’s seat in case of an emergency, but the truck is able to perform all driving functions without human assistance. Daimler currently possesses the largest market share of commercial trucks in the United States, with the Freightliner truck representing 37 percent of the current market. If the Freightliner Inspiration Truck becomes ready for commercial use, this would be a major step for the integration of autonomous vehicles into society. Daimler is also working on developing platoon technology, having also participated in the European Truck Platooning Challenge.

Start-Ups Revolutionizing the Industry

Of all the new technologies, platoon technology is the most likely to be seen in the immediate future. Peloton, a truck platooning and automation start-up based in Mountain View, California, has already accumulated over 15,000 miles of testing and has demonstrated the massive potential benefit of implementing this technology on a large scale. Through their tests, the company has reported an estimated 7 percent savings on fuel costs, roughly 4.5 percent for the lead truck and 10 percent for those trailing.

Uber Advanced Technologies Group and its recently acquired start-up OTTO are currently testing trucks with Levels 3 and 4 automation on public roads in various states across the country. One of these prototypes was used to make the first ever commercial delivery using an autonomous vehicle. An OTTO truck transported a truckload of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colo. to Colorado Springs. The driver remained in the sleeper department of the vehicle for the duration of the trip, and the vehicle was in command the entire way.

Nikola is another start-up that is developing a truck with Level 4 automation. Their truck comes with a unique zero emission value proposition. While their trucks are not yet in production, over 7 thousand interested parties have already paid to preorder a Nikola truck.

Starksy Robotics is another California-based start-up currently developing autonomous vehicle technology. Using this technology, trucks drive autonomously on a highway, but are controlled remotely by a human operator. Each driver will monitor several trucks, likely in the range of 10 – 30, at once. The remote driver will be ready to take over at any time, but will not need to be actively driving the truck until the vehicle exits the highway. Upon exit, the remote driver will take full control of the vehicle until it reaches its final destination.

Barriers to Full Adoption

Companies developing Level 4 or 5 autonomous vehicles must solve several crucial technical problems before the vehicles will be available for the public. Driverless vehicles with Level 4 automation are capable of handling most situations on their own; however, difficult road conditions can cause systems to fail, and a human driver to need to intervene. Precarious conditions include weather, nonexistent or inconsistent road lines, construction, unpredictable human behavior and cybersecurity. Most lane-keep technology currently uses the lines on the road to keep the vehicle centered in the lane. If these lines are absent or obscured by bad weather, the system may struggle to keep the vehicle in its lane. Road construction or poorly mapped roads can disrupt the navigation software used by autonomous vehicles. In reality, many human drivers do not follow some traffic laws, so developers will need to find a way to prepare the vehicles for human errors that are difficult to predict.

Finally, there is the issue of cybersecurity. If these cars are being operated by software systems and communicating wirelessly, there is a possibility that these controls can be hacked or tampered with. When it comes to freight, this is especially concerning because of the value of cargo being transported.

Another dilemma faced by manufacturers is the need to make moral decisions as part of the programming of the vehicle. In some cases, it will be impossible to avoid a crash, and developers will need to decide if it is important to protect the driver first, or make the decision that will avoid as many injuries as possible.

Test Beds for AV Technology

In order to solve these problems, autonomous vehicles are put through extensive tests. These tests are already occurring, in closed facilities and public roads. The largest closed facility for autonomous vehicle tests is located in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This former WW2 B-24 bomber factory was purchased by the state of Michigan and gives researchers 335 anchors to test the AV technology’s performance in a multitude of situations. This facility is not expected to be open until the end of 2018, but some areas will be available for use as early as December 2017.

In addition to closed facilities, the vehicles must be tested to see how they perform on public roads, where conditions are less predictable and much more in alignment with what will be seen when these vehicles are available for public use. Currently, self-driving vehicles can be tested on public roads in Nevada, California, Florida, Arizona and Michigan. Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania’s DOTs have joined together to form the Smart Belt Coalition. This partnership helps to standardize regulations across the states and will allow tests to be conducted over much larger distances. With each successful test, the prospect of self-driving trucks transforming the freight industry gets closer to reality.

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