Autonomous driving makes headlines for its potential to move people, but it is in the trucking and commercial vehicles fields that it will roll out first and have the most immediate impact.
That was the conclusion of a panel of industry experts at the Autonomous Vehicles Detroit 2018 conference this week.
Few consumers will want to pay the extra expense of having self-driving technology in vehicles such as a Ford F-150 pickup truck or Toyota Camry, the panel said. But the cost of assisted driving technology and other autonomous features in trucks and commercial vehicles could have a rapid payback for businesses by slashing fuel and labor expenses and increasing productivity.
Advanced safety technologies — the building blocks of autonomous vehicles — are evolving rapidly to enable automated assisted driving and driverless trucks, they said.
“Four years ago, I said there was no way I was going to see autonomous vehicles in my lifetime,” said Denny Mooney, senior vice president of global product development for truck maker Navistar International Corp. “It is going to happen in commercial vehicles first. We could see autonomous vehicles on the road commercially within three years.”
Consider this number: 43 percent of the cost of freight hauling is the driver, Mooney said.
“If I had no drivers on some of those routes, I’d save 50 percent of the costs. It’s economics,” Mooney said.
The U.S. will be ground zero in the shift to autonomous trucking.
“Europe is focused more on safety than autonomous vehicles,” said Aaron Jefferson, the U.S. vice president of product planning for ZF Friedrichshafen, a large German automotive technology and components company. “We lag in safety, but we lead in autonomous vehicles. It’s the innovation hub. It’s the startup culture.”
But the trucking industry needs evolution, not revolution, said Mike Roeth, executive director of the non-profit North American Council for Freight Efficiency.
Currently available technologies could improve the typical heavy-duty truck’s 6.5 mpg average. Seven truckers achieved 10.1 mpg over 50,000 miles using only off-the-shelf technology in a NACFE-run test last September.
Platooning, a technology where two or more trucks are linked digitally to follow closely, reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency, is an autonomous driving building block that is promising, Roeth said. NACFE testing showed a real-world 4 percent fuel savings from trucks following each other at an interval of about 50 feet.
“That’s huge when the fuel bill can be $50,000 or more,” he said. “Two-truck platooning opened our eyes that there will be value as we bridge to self-driving trucks.”
Trailers powered by a small engine and capable of autonomously detaching themselves, parking and docking could be an early application of self-driving technology, Roeth said. Low-speed collisions account for about 60 to 70 percent of body damage to trucks and trailers from drivers backing into docks and parking at truck stops.
“There is value every step of the way, and I think there is a business case developing where this will be like a snowball going down the hill,” he said.
Trucks at Level 4, an automotive industry designation for highly automated vehicles — Level 5 is fully robotic — could be ready to run on western U.S. freeway corridors, said Jason Roycht, vice president and regional business leader for commercial and off-road vehicles at Robert Bosch North America.
A human, for example, would drive the truck to about 20 miles outside of metropolitan Los Angeles. It would then go into self-driving mode for the next 200 miles of highway, reaching a point where cargo would be unloaded or swapped to another truck to continue to its destination. The original truck then would return to its home base. Level 4 autonomy already is being tested by Embark, which hauls refrigerators from El Paso, Texas, to Los Angeles.
“The quality of life of a driver is better than driving 400 miles in one direction and missing his kid’s recital,” Roycht said.
Bosch, which is partnering with Nikola on fuel cell-powered autonomous heavy-duty trucks, said highway hubs where trailers would be swapped along busy trucking corridors in the southwest, would make ideal locations for electric charging or hydrogen refueling stations. Nikola is raising money for a network of hydrogen stations on freeways.