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Daimler Tests Self-Driving Truck Platoon in Live Traffic

Daimler Trucks tested three autonomous driving big-rigs in a tight “platoon” formation on an open stretch of German highway Monday.

The test – which took place in live traffic – was part of a plan announced by the German automaker to invest roughly $563 million (500 million euros) into self-driving trucks and commercial vehicle connectivity by 2020.

The company, which also owns Mercedes-Benz, displayed its autonomous vehicle technology on a section of the A52 autobahn near Düsseldorf, Germany.

The combination of the three WiFi-connected, autonomously-driving trucks demonstrated that such formations can reduce fuel consumption by up to 7 percent, said Wolfgang Bernhard, the head of Daimler Trucks & Buses. The technology also cuts emissions.

It slashes the road space requirement for the three truck on highways by almost half.

Bird’s eye view of a Daimler test of platooning autonomous trucks near Düsseldorf, Germany. (Photo: Daimler)

Connected trucks traveling in a platoon require spacing of about 50 feet instead instead of the 150 feet required by regular big-rigs, Daimler said. This smaller spacing produces a significant reduction in aerodynamic drag – similar to the slipstream bicycle racers employ in the giant pelotons in the Tour de France and other cycling competitions.

Daimler Trucks calls its system Highway Pilot Connect.

“The smart, self-optimizing truck has the highest priority for us,” said Sven Ennerst, head of Daimler’s Truck Product Engineering & Global Procurement division. “Using connected communication between the truck and other vehicles and the surroundings, we can improve traffic flow and lower fuel consumption and emissions.”

He said the self-driving vehicles will also reduce traffic collisions.

A human driver attempting to brake suddenly has a reaction time of 1.4 seconds, while Daimler’s Highway Pilot Connect automatically stops and transmits braking signals to the vehicles behind in less than 0.1 seconds, the company said. The difference in reaction times should reduce the frequency of rear-end collisions that occur in highway traffic jams.

While such technology holds promise, myriad issues must be resolved before drivers will see self-driving trucks platooning across the highways of North America or Europe, said Cathy Morrow Roberson, founder and chief analyst of Logistics Trends & Insights.

“Insurance and safety, maintenance, management of regulatory requirements are just the tip of the iceberg,” Roberson said.

But the technology holds huge potential to solve such problems as the crucial shortage of truck drivers in the U.S., she said.

“The data generated by these vehicles will benefit the entire supply chain to assist in not only improvements and enhancements but also the creation of new products and services not even thought of yet,” Roberson said.

The technology also could slash the trucking industry’s labor expenses, Stephen Sashihara, chief executive of Princeton Consultants in Princeton, N.J., told Trucks.com, speaking about a similar U.S. Army test planned for June.

Labor typically makes one-third of a firm’s cost of operating each truck, he said.

In the U.S., Daimler’s Freightliner division obtained a Nevada license to test its Inspiration self-driving truck on public highways last year.

Other companies are working on different applications for robotic trucks.

Last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.

Google envisions a typical delivery truck – similar to what UPS and FedEx use – with lockers on the outside. The truck would robotically drive to a home or office and digitally signal the recipient that their package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, type a code into the locker’s keypad and remove their package.

Editor's note:  An earlier version of this article misstated the level of investment Daimler is putting into self-driving trucks and commercial vehicle connectivity by 2020.