Look out – here comes self driving Robo-Truck

truck-platoonThe arrival of the driver-less truck could be closer than many people think, as a number of the planet’s largest corporations get behind the rapidly advancing technology that underpins driver-less truck development.

They are already significantly further along the road than the initial test stage and the innovative technology that is all part of the development promises to increase road safety, minimize driver error and maybe even help to loosen the stranglehold that the driver shortage has imposed on the industry.

But progress is still not fast as most people would ideally want. Like other rapidly developing technologies, its the regulatory body that is responsible for driver-less trucks who are holding everything back. They seem unable to keep pace with the techno-bods.

Driverless trucks are not pie in the sky

Chief marketing Officer of US Xpress, John White, is reported as saying that he doesn’t think driver-less trucks are pie in the sky. US Xpress are of course the US’s seventh biggest haulage carrier. But like so many things to do with the logistics infrastructure in the US, it’s the legislative body in Washington who are the biggest stumbling block. At this point in time it’s looking like we will have the technology ready to be deployed long before we had the necessary legislation in place to turn it into commercially viable option.

The impact on the shortage of drivers

In the meantime, against this background, we still have a chronic shortage of drivers which, according to industry experts, means that we are approximately 20,000 drivers short today. Meanwhile Noel Perry, a chief consultant to FTR (a respected transportation consulting business) says that in his estimation the shortage could be more than 100,000 in coming years, partly because of demographics, partly because of low, and partly because of difficult working conditions for the drivers themselves. All of these factors are doing nothing to improve the prospects of recruitment.

Some of the advantages of driverless trucks

If the right safety protocols can be put in place, the notion of driver-less trucks is an exciting one. They wouldn’t for example be limited to minimum driving hours; they wouldn’t be susceptible to the lure of alcohol or drugs, and they wouldn’t stop every five minutes during their runs.

The problem lies in the regulatory issues

Joe Dagnese (the President of Con-Way Freight) thinks that the prospect of driver-less trucks is extremely interesting, especially after seeing some of the demonstration units that are being tested. However he is reported as saying that the industry is still a long way from adopting the concept. The difficulty as already pointed out by John White of US Xpress is all about the regulatory issues which at the moment don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Mr Dagnese went on to predict that we will see some advances made in the coming months and years. He believes that these advances will help to better working conditions for drivers, will help to make the industry is safer place and to become more proficient.

Google pioneer self drive trucks

Despite all the gloom in terms of the legislative side of things we cannot ignore the facts that the driver-less vehicle you is almost upon us. Although many people will probably not be aware of this, Google is a pioneer in this field. They began their own self driving project back in the year 2009. Now, some six years later, their driver-less vehicles have not stop over 100,000 miles. They’ve been doing this in real life conditions as well; not just on test tracks close of two other vehicles. Google’s fleets of Lexus SUV have been roaming the streets of Austin, Texas fitted up with a range of cameras and sensors and finely detailed street maps complete with lane markings traffic signals and indications where keep clear zones.

At the moment two of Google’s employee’s have been helping to manage and guide the vehicle’s. But in actual fact the new innovative technology has all but taken it over.

The Mercedes S557 struts its stuff

In addition to this and on the automobile side of things, the recent Mercedes S557 sedan test limo can, to all intents and purposes, self-drive on the freeways. It’s capable of keeping to the middle of a lane, maintaining a safe distance behind the vehicle in front, and being able to brake and steer automatically in conjunction with what is happening on the road around it.

The road train of the future

Draw a picture in your mind of a self drive truck being part of the road train. The self-drive truck is being driven solely by being in touch with the truck in front. The driver of the leading vehicle drives shift-one, say from Rotterdam to Paris. Meanwhile the driver in the following truck is taking a nap as his truck and any following trucks automatically follow the leader. As they approach Paris drivers switch roles by reversing the order of the two trucks so the driver who was driving shift-one can now rest-up while the driving two who was taking a nap now takes over.

There is no longer the requirement to stop and take a rest because this now happens while the road train is driving. The swap-over between the drivers can be repeated as many times as it likes until the road train finally arrives in Madrid, where the trucks split-up each going to its final destination.

The Netherlands at the front of innovation

This imaginary scenario is obviously some years away, but it now seems highly likely that within a few short years it will be hands-off as far as steering is concerned in slow rush hour-like traffic.TNO has already shown that self drive passenger cars are a reality when they were test driven on the Dutch A10 motorway. Other automobile manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Daimler, Mercedes and Tesla have also shown their own versions of self drive automobiles.

As far as road trains are concerned a lot of money has been put into research and development and results look promising. In addition to TNO, other truck manufacturers including DAF, Scania and Volvo are developing technological innovations to enable road trains to become a reality in the Netherlands.

Mercedes are also in the race. They are in the process of evolving its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, their vision being that within 10 years, drivers of futuristic trucks will be considered to be transport managers not just truck drivers.

With the Daimler system, as a truck approaches the speed of 50 mph on the motorway, the driver flips a switch to put the truck into “highway pilot” mode. Once in this autonomous mode, the driver can then turn round and man his or her office workstation to so some admin task tasks such as invoicing while the truck drives itself.

Self drive truck evolution will speed up

Industry experts are now forecasting that vehicles will evolve more in the next 20 years than they have over the last 75 years. The revolution in transport can be thought of in the same way as the technological advances to the telephone. What started out as an old black heavy Bakelite box, has now been transformed into what is in effect a small, powerful, pocket-sized computer, complete with camera.

New innovations in unloading

We’re not just talking about piloting trucks either; we’re talking about some new innovations in the automatic unloading of trailers. This manual task often involving drivers as well as freight and packaging handlers could be for the chop, as automated unloading becomes a reality. Experts are saying that the technology already exists; it’s the capital that is harder to come by.

Driverless heavy trucks

As far as heavy trucks are concerned, Caterpillar has already been using a part-autonomous mining truck for many years. The truck is guided from a nearby control tower. At the beginning of this year Paccars Peterbilt factory demo created a prototype self drive class 8 heavy truck. The driver is in effect only an overseer and it is the cameras and sensors that actually take over the driving.

Drivers would be totally redundant however because there will be required for more difficult job such as navigating local roads and backing up to the unloading docks. But there is also a growing voice that says robotics could be used in docking yards when trucks could be programmed to follow the programme is part leading to the appropriate docking bays.

In May of this year Peterbilt put a driver-less truck through its paces on Interstate 15 down in Nevada. Governor Sabdoval who witnessed the demonstration reported that he’d like to have his support for driver-less trucks adopted as part of a multi-million dollar motorway widening project in Las Vegas.

He also commented that he’d like to see Nevada become the centre for the autonomous truck industry. Sandoval has also been reported as saying that no one would have imagined the iPhone 20 years ago. He says that that is how he now feels the future to be shaping up for the self drive truck industry.

Small platoon truck formations more economic

Other tests have taken place including so-called “platoon” formations whereby a small road train of up to 5 trucks is assembled and guided by the lead truck. In tests carried out by Auburn University they showed that these type of “platoon” units may be able to save somewhere between 5% and 10% on fuel, and at the same time they would probably deliver a larger cargo than single or double trailer formations.

One of the top executives at XPO, a large 3PL supplier, voiced the opinion that self-drive trucks could do away with 20% of the total number of miles driven empty as experienced by small fleets, and 10% as experienced by larger fleets.

Autonomous truck corridor between Mexico and Alaska

There has also been talk of a North-South autonomous truck corridor which would run between Mexico and Alaska. It would basically follow the old Interstate 83 route which stretches out from Mexico City passing through a multitude of states before arriving in Canada and terminating at Alaska.

Many social and political objectives to be overcome

Mark Rourke, the President of Transport for the US’s second biggest TL carrier, Schneider, admitted that there are still many significant social and legal obstacles to be overcome, but believes it will happen given time although its application will probably be limited.

But Rourke also admits that there will be some tremendous benefits in terms of safety. Many of the technologies being developed such as sensors will probably go mainstream first by the existing driver driven trucks. It will improve both the environment and safety issues tremendously.

One other potential benefits of this new cutting edge technology is that it might win some new blood and entrepreneur spirit into a $700 billion industry that is seen as partly being peopled by sticking-in-the-mud dinosaurs.

The transport industry needs a make-over

The fact of the matter is that transportation is not seen as being either a sexy or glamorous profession. In fact in many education establishments, a career in transport is never promoted so young people had no awareness of the potential. The challenge is to generate that awareness and promote the transportation industry into what it is really becoming, which is an exciting technology driven sector with plenty of opportunity for expansion.

There are many obstacles along the way; for example what would happen if a self drive truck was involved in an accident? Who would be liable? Would it be the company or the computer programmer or the shipper? But despite these issues, trucks are being produced with automatic braking and steering control facilities, and it is believed that many more innovations are on the way.

The demand and shortage of truck drivers likely to continue

In reality the future will be a balance of what is achievable in terms of cost, and what is realistic in terms of its applications. The future may see the role drivers changed significantly as they become more like pilots who are able to execute other duties while the truck is in autopilot mode. But given the legislative bottleneck, the likelihood is that the demand for drivers will continue in the foreseeable as will the driver shortage, unless something can be done to significantly improve their packages.


What do you see as the main objections to driver-less trucks and when will they be overcome if ever? Have your say at the feedback section below.

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