Automakers are just starting to roll out the first semi-autonomous cars – vehicles that can pilot themselves on stretches of the highway, perform parallel parking and automatically brake if a crash is imminent.
With Daimler’s Freightliner division already testing its Inspiration autonomous concept on Nevada roadways, semi-automated trucks won’t be far behind.
The rollout of semi-autonomous and then self-driving trucks will yield significant improvements in fuel economy and safety, according to a new study by consulting firm Roland Berger.
By reducing the daily mix of stress and boredom on drivers, the study said, automated trucks — which will still have drivers for now — could help address a driver shortage in the trucking industry by attracting younger, more tech-savvy employees.
The transition won’t come without cost, the consulting firm wrote in its report, “Automated Trucks: The next big disruptor in the automotive industry?”
Smart safety technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning systems, are already beginning to find a place in heavy trucking, but fully autonomous vehicles will require still more technology.
All told, the technological evolution to fully autonomous trucks will likely add about $23,400 to the price of the typical big rig. That would push the cost of a tractor-trailer to $165,000 to $200,000, depending on the make and model.
But the payback would be significant, and not just over the long haul.
A fully automated truck, the study concluded, would see fuel consumption reduced by as much as 10 percent.
The automation could potentially reduce truck crashes to a thing of the past. They would plunge from a U.S. average of 222 per 1 million vehicle miles in 2000 to just eight by 2040, the report said. Almost 4,000 people die annually in U.S. crashes involving trucks, according to the Department of Transportation.
But getting that technology onto the road will require a long transition as smart vehicles – both passenger cars and trucks – replace the existing “dumb” U.S. fleet.
There will be other payoffs along the way, the study said, including improved highway flow, which will translate into reduced costs for vehicle operators.
Among other things, automated trucks will be able to “platoon.”
Technology allowing trucks to travel in a tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two to five vehicles would trim wind resistance, increase fuel efficiency and could ultimately reduce labor costs with the advent of driverless trucks.
The technology is just now getting field tested.
The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure sponsored the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016 this week – a demonstration in which six semi-autonomous truck platoons from Belgium, Germany and Sweden drove on public roadways to Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The U.S. Army plans a similar test on a public highway in Michigan later this year.
Initial automated vehicle tests, both involving cars and trucks, are largely focused on vehicles that will still require a driver in place, ready to take over in an emergency. Though fully driverless vehicles are the eventual goal for many advocates – Google, in particular – most proponents expect that to be further down the road, likely 2030 or beyond.
That means drivers will remain part of the truck fleet for some time, though they will also benefit from what might better be described as “hands-free” driving.
For drivers, benefits will include better rest periods, less stress and boredom, and improved comfort and safety.
And that, said Roland Berger, should make it easier to recruit drivers.
The study does note that the benefits of automated driving will vary depending upon the type of use a truck will experience. Long-haul lines will see a return on investment in as little as three years, though payback could be substantial longer for regional carriers, especially those on low-traffic roads.
The hardware needed for automated driving is being developed rapidly, with the first truck prototype, the Freightliner Inspiration, beginning testing last year.
Exactly how soon concept will translate into reality is unclear, in part because of challenges on the software side, which includes making sure automated trucks will be smart enough to safely handle all the situations they may run into.
There are also regulatory issues, Roland Berger said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to issue its first guidelines for autonomous vehicles within the next few months, a first step in what will likely be a long rule-making process. And that could be the factor that really determines when the first automated trucks take to the highway.
The agency plans to hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Friday to get comments on guidelines for the safe deployment of automated vehicles and other automated safety technologies. Fully self-driving cars could be plying U.S. roads as early as 2022.
NHTSA sees active safety technology and eventually autonomous driving as key tools in efforts to end U.S. traffic fatalities.
Almost 33,000 people died in crashes in 2014 – the latest year for which NHTSA has complete data. Through the first half of 2015, the death rate was 10 percent higher than it was at the same time in 2014, Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator, told a safety conference in Long Beach on Monday.
“It’s about 100 people a day losing their lives,” Rosekind said.
That requires a shift in thinking about traffic safety, Rosekind said.
Previous safety efforts assumed that crashes would happen and that the best way to save likes was to mitigate their intensity and provide occupant protection. Technological innovation, however, offers the opportunity to prevent crashes from happening, he said.
“We need to save the lives before they are threatened,” Rosekind said.