It seems self-driving trucks have taken over the spotlight–as was the case at CES 2020 in Las Vegas last month.
While earlier, idealistic visions of automated passenger cars have excited the industry, manufacturers and technology startups made it clear at the January conference that automated commercial vehicles were indeed the next wave of futuristic transport.
For example, Paccar Inc. and Plus.ai showcased new tech they believe will become widely used throughout trucking in the coming years. A sensor-heavy and Level 4 automated driving-equipped truck took the stage–a commercial vehicle that can drive itself without need of a human driver in certain conditions.
Kenworth Truck Co., the brand operating under Paccar Inc., debuted this proof-of-concept truck quietly, because the company is currently working on learning as much as it can regarding automated truck driving expectations.
“We have a pretty good plan, and it’s going to take a lot of validation work once we get it to the point where it can run hands-off and we’re confident of it,” said Kenworth research and development director, Brian Lindgren. “Doing all of the validation work is going to be a couple of years to prove in different situations that you can’t always foresee when you’re designing it.”
The new conventional body T680 does not appear to the naked eye to be terribly different than its original design; however, the traditional exterior mirrors are equipped with light-detecting and ranging units (LiDar)–an important upgrade. The truck’s global navigation satellite system gives high location accuracy–within a centimeter, to be exact–when using its inertial measurement unit in combination with a LiDar point on a high-definition map.
For the interior hardware, five computers host feedback control logic and record up to 1 terabyte of data for every hour of driving.
“We’re using this as a test bed to try out different sensors and LiDar,” said Lindgren. Three different LiDars come from two suppliers. Three radars, along with six cameras, sense surrounding road conditions and then feed fusion algorithms to track objects.
Additional modifications include a torque overlay system of redundant steering, a new high-capacity alternator, an electronically controlled air-braking system, and rear seats (instead of sleeper berths) for engineers on ride-alongs.
ZF Group, Ryder System, and Locomation also weighed in on the future of automated trucks, and many industry members view automated commercial vehicles to be more rewarding than self-driving passenger cars overall.
“At ZF, we believe that systems for Level 4 or fully automated driving and upwards right now only make sense for commercial vehicles and people-movers,” said Wolf-Henning Scheider, CEO of the company.
ZF will focus on using Level 2 systems for passenger cars–meaning drivers are always involved. The cost of the necessary technology for widespread individual use of automated cars would make it less than sensible right now, Scheider explained.
A return on investment is much more likely for commercial transportation businesses in their use of Level 4 systems, however. Scheider said automated commercial trucks would work well in areas like logistics centers and harbors in the near future.
“First, we have to start with systems that only run on premises,” he said, “which would already reduce the number of hours that drivers are needed significantly.”
For now, highly automated trucks will still need safety drivers present during on-road operations, especially with the confusion currently surrounding legality aspects–including how such a vehicle could comply with law enforcement.
“[A] very simple question: How does a police car stop a fully autonomous truck?” asked Scheider. “But, we are working on it.”
Regardless, the day before the conference, ZF announced its plans to provide a fully autonomous commercial vehicle for an anonymous customer by 2025.
“There is a lot of development that is happening in the automotive industry overall that is accelerating some of this,” said Kenworth’s Lindgren in response. “Not of all it is really built for heavy trucks. It doesn’t have the kind of longevity and durability that we need.”
Still, Lindgren believes it is possible for autonomous trucks to enter mainstream operations by 2025–in both terminal and on-road environments.
“We’re pursuing both so they could come together at the same time,” he explained.
In addition, Paccar’s general manager, Stephan Olsen, believes professional truck drivers will continue to be enormously important to the industry, regardless of the promise of autonomous vehicles.
We’re not in the business of taking drivers out of the truck,” he said. “We’re in the business of taking technology and applying it to make drivers’ jobs more comfortable, safer, and more efficient.”