The first impacts of autonomous trucks may be on warehouses, not highways.
THE DRIVERLESS OR autonomous truck is coming to a distribution center near you, possibly in the next couple of years. But don’t expect a vehicle capable of navigating highways, road construction, jaywalkers and railroad crossings to deliver cargo 50 or 100 miles from a port unassisted by a human any time soon.
The self-driving truck’s first use in the U.S. and Canada may well be in warehouses, not on highways. Michael P. Murphy, chief development officer of CenterPoint Properties in Oak Brook, Illinois, points out that autonomous vehicles already are in use at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “These trucks move containers from the crane and ship area into the loading area. These are fully automated trucks and humans are not allowed within the area during operational shifts for safety reasons.”
Murphy is enthusiastic about the concept and feels that the autonomous trucks would offer significant synergies within distribution centers. Many CenterPoint facilities, for example, are located in close proximity to rail heads and intermodal locations. (See “Intermodal Hubs and the Industrial Real Estate Boom.”) He also finds the idea that railroads could off-load containers, place them on autonomous trucks and move them rapidly into distribution facilities exciting.
Prologis’ Kim Snyder, president, U.S. Southwest region, said that this version of the driverless truck could also alleviate the driver shortage for short hauls. For example, autonomous trucks could be used to move goods from shipside to cross-dock facilities less than a mile from the port complex. These transfers typically involve routine, repetitive movements that require less skill and traffic interaction. “These types of automated movements of goods are better suited to driverless vehicles,” he said, “whereas more interactive goods movement requires an experienced person to make efficient decisions about truck-to-car interaction.”
What design changes would the typical warehouse require to accept deliveries from autonomous trucks? “Design changes would imply standardization,” Snyder continued. “Consistent trucking maneuvering dimensions and yard configurations would allow for more readily manageable interaction with driverless trucks. Truck courts with imbedded guide wiring and proximity sensors near the dock areas would be essential for safety and clear interaction between driverless vehicles and logistics operations.”
Major retailers and their suppliers are working on technologies they can use for trucks on the road. Bill Kahn, principal engineer and manager of advanced concepts with Peterbilt Motors Co. in Denton, Texas, said that his firm’s focus is on advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS). Peterbilt is working with major retailers, including Wal-Mart, on autonomous vehicles for their fleets.
Daimler Trucks is the first manufacturer to be granted a road license for an autonomous heavy-duty truck. The first Freightliner Inspiration Truck took its inaugural trip on U.S. Highway 15 in Las Vegas.
Self-driving cars and trucks must have the capability to be self-aware on the road to navigate the many situations that arise. “It is challenging for an automobile to be self-aware out on the road. When it comes to trucks, it is even more difficult because it is an articulated vehicle or a bigger vehicle and it cannot automatically travel to the same places that cars go. Our focus right now and for the long term is on keeping the driver involved for situational awareness, but at the same time allowing the driver to drive the vehicle more safely,” Kahn added.
Still, skepticism abounds about the new technology, according to Scott Malat, chief strategy officer for XPO Logistics Inc. in Greenwich, Connecticut, a major third-party logistics provider. Manufacturers must address many programming challenges and regulatory hurdles before the autonomous truck concept is truly marketable. Malat said, however, that the technology is developing at a rapid clip, and large investments are being made. The auto companies have said they expect driverless trucks to become a reality in seven to 10 years.
One company that is predicting major advances 10 years hence is Daimler. The Stuttgart, Germany-based firm's “Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025” research and development project is named for the year in which Daimler expects to introduce this product. Daimler’s autonomous trucks are getting an early try-out on U.S. roads. According to a Daimler press release, the first journey on the so-called Freightliner Inspiration Truck took place in Las Vegas on May 5, 2015 with Brian Sandoval, governor of Nevada, and Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, a Daimler board member, aboard. The truck is equipped with the intelligent Highway Pilot system for autonomous driving. The state of Nevada has licensed two Freightliner Inspiration Trucks for regular operation on public roads.
Truck Platooning and Beyond
Other on-the-road technologies may well be introduced in less than a decade. One of these, known as “platooning,” would enable a number of trucks to travel along a highway together, all controlled by the first vehicle. It requires development of a new technology called “lane-keeping” that is only a few years off, according to Peterbilt’s Kahn. He said that the challenge comes when the lead truck needs to change lanes on the highway. The trucks following behind must then have drivers fully engaged to perform the lane change.
Beyond platooning, “driver assist” is another exciting innovation that may not be far away. It would enable a truck to move forward in stop-and-go fashion without the driver having to be intensely focused on the process, which can be exhausting, as everyone who has ever suffered through rush-hour traffic knows.
For major breakthroughs, like a driverless truck backing up to a loading dock — perhaps similar to today’s self-parking autos, such as the Mercedes-Benz S Class cars — both the cab and trailer would require cameras and sensors for a 360-degree view of the surroundings. (Currently, sensors and cameras are only loaded into the cab, not the trailer, because of the cost.) If prices were to fall dramatically in the future — to $100 or less for cameras and below $1,000 a unit for sensors — then perhaps entire vehicles could be equipped for a more autonomous driving experience.
While fully self-driving trucks may be some time off, it is clear that they offer many potential benefits. “Some of the studies on driverless trucks predict fewer days in transit, enhanced safety and fuel efficiency,” said XPO Logistics’ Malat. “Autonomous trucks will not need to stop and rest, and they could arguably be programmed to operate more safely and more fuel efficiently than trucks currently on the road. These are ‘blueprint benefits’: it will interesting to watch them evolve in real-life transportation scenarios.”