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The rise of autonomous vehicles

Posted: December 28, 2016 by Rolf Lockwood

Cause we got a little old convoy
Rockin’ through the night.
Yeah, we got a little old convoy, 
Ain’t she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
Ain’t nothin’ gonna get in our way.
We gonna roll this truckin’ convoy
‘Cross the U-S-A.
Convoy!
-CW McCall 

We got ourselves a convoy.

Sure do, but not the way Kris Kristofferson announced it in the iconic movie Convoy, inspired by the classic CW McCall song of the same name. For one thing, we’re not linking up via CB radio or -anything else like we did in the bad ol’ analog days. No sir. We are now Connected with a very capital ‘C’.

Could things be any different?

Some 40 years since the film was released, we have the amazing ability to ‘flash’ the update for a power map over the ether and into an engine if the truck leading a convoy (the “front door” in CB speak) is more heavily laden than its followers.

Daimler’s Highway Pilot Connect system, introduced in Germany a few weeks ago, knows the weight of all trucks in a convoy, knows the terrain the group is traveling, and calculates how much extra power that lead truck will need in the hilly terrain ahead if it’s
to keep everyone moving at an efficient pace. Automatically,
that lead truck will temporarily get more horsepower and torque as required.

Unlike Kristofferson with one hand on the CB mic, his right foot planted hard on the throttle in that old R-Model Mack, the lead driver of this new Daimler-style convoy will calmly sit back and watch the proceedings. Arms folded, he might even have his feet up on the dash, though that would no doubt be frowned upon. Drivers in following trucks will be similarly relaxed. Kristofferson’s heart was racing.

Daimler Trucks is on the leading edge here, with the introduction of its Highway Pilot Connect platooning system.

In a demonstration near Dusseldorf this March, three semi–autonomous Mercedes-Benz Actros tractors pulled their trailers down the A52 autobahn in a platoon formation – 15 meters or 49 feet apart – and eventually into the massive hall where some 300 journalists had been assembled for the occasion.

It’s a world first, of course. We’ve seen platooning demonstrations before, going back several decades in fact, but never with semi-autonomous trucks. Just a couple of weeks later those same three trucks joined a set of six separate platoons from six truck makers, all converging on Rotterdam and launching a conference. They traveled on public roads, too (see page 31).

Highway Pilot Connect is based on the existing Highway Pilot system that Daimler showcased in 2014 with its Future Truck 2025 program, the first semi-autonomous heavy truck to hit the road. That was dramatic but it was on a closed German highway. It was followed last May with the introduction by Daimler Trucks North America of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, which -traveled down some very public roads in Nevada. And it was licensed to do so, also a world first.

The Highway Pilot is now approved for use on public roads throughout Germany, while Highway Pilot Connect is approved for platoon driving within the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, for the complete A81 autobahn from Lake Constance to Würzburg. Only the greater Stuttgart area is excluded. Daimler has received additional approval for the A52 in the greater Düsseldorf area. Further demonstrations and test drives are possible with individually granted permissions.

The company started down the road to connectivity 30 years ago when the European Prometheus research project first -developed and tested platooning on public roads and laid the foundations for today’s fully networked vehicle. Renault, Scania and Volkswagen, among others, were also involved in that effort.

But this is about a much bigger vision.

 

THE CONNECTED TRUCK

The theme of the Dusseldorf event was actually not platooning, but instead connectivity, and Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler Trucks and Buses, sees the truck as the centre of a broad logistics network.

“We are connecting the truck with the internet,” he said, “making it the mobile data centre of the logistics network. It connects all those involved in goods: drivers, schedulers, fleet operators, workshops, manufacturers, and insurance companies or authorities. They receive information in real time, which was previously unavailable: about the condition of the tractor unit and semi–trailer, traffic and weather conditions, the parking availability at motorway service stations, rest areas, and much more.”

“Our trucks fully connect with their environment, becoming part of the internet and continuously sending and receiving information,” he said. “In the future it will be possible to reduce waiting times while loading and unloading, reduce paperwork and avoid traffic jams. With flash updates over the air or automated transfer of inbound time for trucks heading to the service point, maintenance time can be reduced significantly. In this way we are considerably improving the performance of goods transport as a whole. An enormous opportunity to intelligently cope with the growing volume of goods traffic. We intend to use it,” said Bernhard.

“If you asked me to blueprint the connected truck,” he went on, “I’d say ‘this truck will always be driving, it will always be fully loaded, never be stuck in a traffic jam, it will never fail, and it will be piloted by a happy driver.'”

He added that with such a truck, there would be no paperwork, accidents or breakdowns, but he also said he is “well aware that we might never completely get there. But it’s the direction we’re taking. At full speed. And with a hot heart.”

 

ELECTRONIC DOCKING

Highway Pilot Connect involves networked vehicles and a very precise awareness of their surroundings. It’s been under test since October 2015 in a standard Actros tractor operating on public roads in Germany.

Compared to the original Highway Pilot, the latest system has an additional technical function for electronic vehicle docking. Communication between vehicles is made possible by an onboard telematics platform. A specific V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle) communication module using a special wi-fi standard reserved exclusively for automotive use enables direct data transfer between the trucks. As many as 10 information ‘packets’ are exchanged between the platooned trucks every second. A similar connection exists between the trucks and their surroundings by way of a V2I (Vehicle to Infrastructure) exchange of information.

As many as 10 semi-autonomous trucks can be connected in one lengthy ‘train’. The vehicles are equipped with both linear and lateral guidance systems. Although they’re connected to each other in the platoon, they can each be operated independently. And with Daimler’s trucks, semi-autonomously. Not so with other demonstrated platoons.

The demonstration we saw on a very large screen in Dusseldorf showed what happens when a car enters the space between trucks in order to take a highway exit. In that case the following truck automatically backed off, and the one behind it did the same. Once the car had fled the scene, the trucks gradually caught up to the lead vehicles and assumed the 15-meter gaps again. It was entirely seamless.

Daimler says there’s a substantial saving in fuel economy of about 7% overall for a three-truck platoon (2% for the lead truck, 11% for the one in the middle, and 9% for the last). As well, the three tractor-trailer units take up about half as much road space as three non-platooned rigs would require, assuming the 50-meter gaps that German law demands.

 

THE PLATOONING ROAD

I have to say there’s a distinct lack of drama in a semi-autonomous platoon truck. Some of us journalists were taken onto the A52 in the platoon of three. I was in the third and last truck and was impressed by how seamless the connecting and disconnecting was.

Once up to speed, my driver put the truck in Highway Pilot semi-autonomous mode and relaxed. The lead truck signaled that it was ready to platoon, then the second truck did so. All of that is evident on the dashboard. When we were ready, the driver pressed a switch and the gap between us and the truck in front diminished to 15 meters. A car invaded that gap and the truck automatically slowed, speeding up to connect again when the car turned off. All of it automatically. All this while the driver had his arms folded and let the truck work.

A couple of times the GPS forced the truck to slow and the gap to widen, again without intervention, because it ‘saw’ that we were approaching a merging lane from the right. It recognized that there would be traffic wading into the stream. Once past that, we were connected again.

I asked the driver and co-driver (the latter there by law), both of them development engineers who know the system intimately, how Highway Pilot Connect would deal with trucks that were a little different. In this case, of course, the three ‘team’ trucks were identical Actros cabovers maintained to within an inch of their lives. That means predictably similar braking performance.

In the real world, the vision foresees platoons forming spontaneously, and not necessarily with trucks of the same make, spec’ or condition. A driver may see an opportunity and ‘ask’ electronically to join a platoon. What happens if his truck’s brakes have been poorly maintained compared to others in the platoon? How does the system deal with that, the possibility that a rear-ender could occur during a panic-stop?

The drivers acknowledged that this scenario could indeed arise, and they’re working on an algorithm to deal with it. Among the 400 sensors on these trucks, some of them measure brake wear.

In an earlier video we saw what happens when the lead truck has to pull off a panic stop. With no driver intervention – but likely much surprise – the two following trucks braked simultaneously and threw their drivers hard against safety belts. The system reacts in less than 0.10 seconds, much faster than a human could. At 80 km-h that equates to reacting in just 2.2 meters instead of 30. An awful lot of bad stuff can happen in that extra distance.

 

OTHER PLATOONERS

Daimler is not alone, of course. In early April six separate platoons formed by six European truck makers traveled, on separate routes along public roads, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Invited to participate by the Dutch government, there were platoons from DAF, Iveco, MAN, Scania, Volvo, and of course Daimler. The event was called the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016.

Dutch organizers say the effort “aims to combine as many forces as possible to realize truck platooning in the near future. We will do this by creating a European partnership between truck manufacturers, logistics service providers, research institutes and governments – and by sharing knowledge and experience around truck platooning.

“We believe that truck platooning can become a reality in Europe in the near future.

“At the same time, realization will depend on bringing together member states and private parties with a view to crossing borders while harmonizing policies and technical issues. Close co-operation between significant partners in the truck industry, logistics services, research institutes and governmental can realize the ‘big picture’. Truck platooning will become routine,” said Challenge organizers.

Realistic? Seems so. Estimates about when we’ll see it in action range from five years to 10, at least for over-the-road operations.

 

AND IN NORTH AMERICA

On this side of the pond things aren’t quite so advanced, but even the U.S. Army is getting ready for it by working on autonomous trucks. There have been platooning efforts going back to the 1980s, and the first vision of an autonomous vehicle goes all the way back to General Motors in 1936.

As well as Freightliner, Peterbilt has developed a semi–autonomous tractor and has participated in a couple of on-the-public-road demonstrations.

At the centre of the latter effort is California’s Peloton Technologies, a Silicon Valley outfit that’s been working with Volvo and Peterbilt and others. Volvo is an investor, as is Denso.

Peloton’s truck platooning system is an integrated safety, efficiency, and analytics platform that builds on advanced safety technologies such as collision mitigation and adaptive cruise control systems. The system electronically couples trucks through a combination of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communications, radar-based active braking systems, and proprietary vehicle -control algorithms.

There are thousands more words to write on the subject, but no space to do it.

Let’s end with a small irony. The premise of the movie Convoy, and its plot was as thin as a dispatcher’s patience, was the angry objection by truck drivers to the recently mandated 55-mph interstate speed limit. All of these modern convoys are limited to that speed, or less.

So sure, let them truckers roll, but they’re going to be doing
it slowly.  

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