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Navistar Exec Bets Big on Autonomous Trucks and Platooning

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Navistar International Corp. will increase its investment in autonomous vehicle and truck platooning technology, part of an effort to stave off rivals as industry interest in self-driving heavy trucks intensifies.

Troy Clarke

When the Lisle, Ill., truck manufacturer launched its new International LT heavy-duty truck line in Las Vegas on Friday, Navistar Chief Executive Troy Clarke discussed impending competition from unconventional quarters.

Ridesharing innovator Uber Technologies Inc. recently announced its partnership with Volvo Cars to develop autonomous vehicles. And in August, Uber acquired autonomous vehicle start-up Otto, which is developing kits to help existing rigs adopt autonomous features.

Otto said last week that it plans to grow its fleet from six to 15 trucks and is looking to work with independent truckers to roll out its autonomous driving technology. It expects to start hauling freight as early as next year in its own trucks and with others who have adopted Otto’s technology. Uber, according to Reuters, has already started pitching services to shippers, truck fleets and independent drivers.

Navistar intends to up its game as well over the next decade, though details are vague at the moment. The new International LT line will include a predictive cruise control system that “looks” ahead of the truck, recognizes the terrain and continuously calculates the most efficient speed and gear for optimal fuel economy.

The company also plans to explore so-called platoon technology, in which digitally linked packs of two to five trucks drive closely in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency.

The pack can be controlled by a captain in the cab of the first vehicle. The other vehicles follow with their own drivers or, eventually, autonomously.

IHS Automotive analysts estimate that annual sales of autonomous heavy-duty trucks could reach 600,000 units annually by 2035, beginning with several thousand deployed in 2020.

The autonomous technology is ideal for long-haul trucking, according to Tom De Vleesschauwer, director of industry analysis for IHS. The routes tend to be predetermined and laid out for interstate highways, where traffic flow is fairly straightforward.

The technology “will not be cheap upon introduction,” he said, noting that the first adopters will likely be larger transport fleets. Last year, Daimler debuted its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the world’s first licensed autonomous truck.

Safety is a major part of the appeal of self-driving big rigs.

In September, federal regulators issued new autonomous vehicle guidelines. The government believes self-driving vehicles will lead to fewer accidents than vehicles with human drivers.

Approximately 35,000 people died in roadway collisions in 2015, and 94 percent of the crashes “can be tied to a human choice or error,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which jointly released the recommendations with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last month. “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”

But Navistar’s Clarke said that questions remain as to how soon truck platooning will be ready for the market, how receptive Navistar’s customers will be and how quickly the government will implement regulations “that give manufacturers a clear path to build these types of vehicles.”

Michael Lukuc, a connected-vehicle expert at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, thinks truck platooning will be road-ready soon. Platoons are the first step to a more distant rollout of fully autonomous trucks.

“It’s going to be a long time before trucks are fully automated on the roads,” he said. “It’s so far off, when you think about an 80,000-pound vehicle driving down the highway with no one behind the wheel.”

Clarke said the role of the truck driver will also change in the next decade. He compared drivers in truck platoons with commercial airline pilots using autopilot technology — still a necessary part of the operation.

“These technologies have been on airplanes for years and they have resulted in dramatic safety improvements in commercial aviation,” he said. “Yet pilots are still needed for takeoffs and landings and special circumstances and emergencies.”

Insurance companies will continue to demand a human overseer to safeguard valuable cargo, according to De Vleesschauwer of IHS. And drivers will need to sign paperwork, handle pre-trip inspections and deal with problems that arise mid-transit.

“It remains our view that heavy trucks will continue to have a requirement for a human driver as supervisor, but clearly their role will be more ‘hands-off’ in terms of driving,” he said.