Autonomous Trucking

Is the quest for driverless trucking in it for the long haul?

Image credit: Pailton Engineering

How the commercial vehicle sector is preparing for autonomous driving.

The global trucking industry is estimated to be worth around £600bn annually, equivalent to $700bn in the US, where truck driving is the number one occupation in no fewer than 29 states. In addition, the sector has emerged as the key battleground in the development of automated driving.

Engineers’ initial efforts focused on the quest to build commercially viable driverless automobiles, but in the last year there has been a move toward the commercial vehicle sector. This shift can be seen in several key partnerships that have been signed between tech startups and the world’s largest truck manufacturers.

Waymo, often seen as the leader in driverless technology, has partnered with Daimler, the world’s largest truck manufacturer. Meanwhile, TuSimple is teaming up with Traton, a subsidiary of Volvo, whilst Aurora - which is backed by Amazon and has recently acquired all of Uber’s self-driving tech - has joined forces with Volvo and Paccar.

In many ways, trucks are a more viable focal point for the development of the artificial intelligence needed for fully autonomous driving. Long-haul vehicles travel on long, monotonous highways, whereas the urban mobility navigated by automobiles and robo-taxis is more complex.

The difficulty with developing the AI centres around what engineers refer to as ‘edge cases’; those unique scenarios that are rarely encountered in a typical journey. Put simply, there are more edge cases for the AI to deal with in complex urban environments.

Could the trucking industry reap the benefits of autonomy ahead of other vehicle sectors? There is a strong commercial case for greater investment. One factor is the current limitations on human driver hours for safety reasons, which limits journeys to eleven hours. With autonomous trucking (AT), a vehicle could be on the road for longer periods. It’s estimated that a trip from New York to LA could be cut from five days to just two, resulting in significant cost savings.

AT is also being touted as a possible solution to the shortage of truck drivers. Although two-thirds of US consumer goods are transported by trucks, the American Trucking Association (ATA) predicts the driver shortage will reach 160,000 by 2028. By investing in greater levels of autonomy, the industry can solve the driver shortage while continuing to meet growing demand for deliveries.

According to advocates of AT, AI-based cruise control will reduce fuel costs by up to 10 per cent. The optimised driving judgements of the AI can yield other savings from reduced tyre and brake wear to lower maintenance and insurance costs. The process of optimising journeys will make further improvements as AT gathers data from journeys and uses it to enhance fuel efficiency.

How exactly will AT work? Rather than automating the entire journey, the current plan is for a ‘hub-to-hub’ approach. An autonomous, or semi-autonomous, heavy goods vehicle would transport goods from one depot to another, along a relatively straightforward route. The more complex 'last mile' of the delivery would then be performed by a human driver.

A common approach to the development of AT is the development of a computer ‘driver’. This can be retrofitted to an existing vehicle, rather than having to develop an entirely new vehicle from scratch. For example, the autonomous start-up Aurora has been developing a one-size-fits all system that can be installed on any vehicle.

Vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have always demanded high-quality components. These vehicles must travel immense distances in all manner of weather conditions, placing significant demands on steering and suspension parts.

To be ready for the AT future, component manufacturers may need to raise their game. According to 2019 data from the US Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, 538 out-of-service violations were discovered during vehicle checks, in addition to a further 1,000 non-OOS violations. Problems included suspension defects or steering-related problems. The most common steering-related defects were when components were found to be worn, welded or even missing.

Although relatively rare, reducing the risk of component defects is of growing importance, as AT must demonstrate the highest levels of reliability and safety to become commercially viable.

It is not enough to demonstrate that an autonomous vehicle is as safe as a human driver, as can be seen from some of the high-profile accidents that have undermined efforts to develop driverless tech in other vehicle sectors. Whether we are talking about a steering universal joint or steering columns, opting for high-quality parts helps reduce the risk of defects.

A decade ago, few would have predicted that long-haul trucking would have been the focal point of new autonomous driving technologies. Now, the sector looks like it will reap the benefits of autonomy ahead of other vehicle sectors. Although the main focus will be on software development and testing of AI, parts suppliers also need to contribute by making sure their components will meet the unique challenges these vehicles will face.

Roger Brereton is head of sales at steering components manufacturer Pailton Engineering.

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