Truck makers are betting on long-haul autonomous trucking

Autonomous passenger cars seem far away, but several truck manufacturers are investing heavily in their long-haul operations. By Jacob Moreton

Many long-haul trucking operators are betting on autonomous technology. By reducing the number of drivers needed to run a fleet of vehicles – perhaps even to zero – truck makers can cut costs and tackle the issues that have plagued the segment for decades.

In the passenger vehicle segment, progress on autonomous vehicles (AV) seems slower than expected just a few years ago, and the benefits are not forthcoming. From December 2020 to April 2021, Uber, Travel, and Lyft all sold their AV units to larger companies. In this context, audiovisual developers are spending much more money and effort on commercial vehicle operations, especially long distance trucking.

“Long-haul trucking does what’s easiest for automated driving,” says Brett Smith, director of technology at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). “It works on long-distance highways that are generally well signposted, well signposted. When you watch Super Cruise or Tesla’s almost fully autonomous vehicle, this is where they work well.

The simplest stand-alone application?

The long, open roads familiar to long-haul truck drivers make the segment “the simplest part of the automated driving portfolio,” adds Smith. “You could say that driving in a suburban neighborhood or in a very open space, like Waymo in Arizona does, is not incredibly difficult. It’s tough – I give them credit for it – but driving on a freeway in good weather is something a lot of companies are doing right now.

In August 2021, Waymo Via announced an expansion of its autonomous trucking footprint in the southern United States.

One company investing heavily in self-driving long-haul trucking is Waymo, which, through its trucking division, Waymo Via, is currently expanding into Texas, Arizona, and California, with plans to build a nine-acre trucking center in Texas and a partnership with Ryder for fleet management services at hubs and test sites. Going forward, the company intends to continue expanding its testing operations in the southwestern United States, a spokesperson said.

No humans in the loop

Waymo’s test plans are ambitious; it aims no less than level 4 autonomy, which does not require any human driver. In current tests, Waymo trucks have two people in the vehicle monitoring the route: a licensed AV driver and a technician in the passenger seat.

“While our trucks currently operate with autonomous human specialists monitoring the route, they operate autonomously 24/7 and are already equipped to achieve full autonomy, without a human driver, when we are ready”, explains the spokesperson. “Our autonomous driving system, Waymo Driver, includes both software and a suite of sensors capable of performing the entire driving task. Ultimately, our goal is to eliminate autonomous specialists and leverage the power of our technology to transport goods in fully autonomous trucks. “

A driver of efficiency

Before companies like Waymo achieve full range, drivers will stay in the vehicle. At this point, only small adjustments can be made to the efficiency of the vehicle through range, explains Smith of CAR. “You can teach your driver to become better and better and better and better, and you can plan for the future,” he says. “You can’t predict it for sure, but you can plan the future in terms of factors like hills, to make the driving cycle more efficient from point A to point B.”

With an optimized and reliable network of self-driving vehicles, fleets will be able to reduce the number of dead kilometers and improve efficiency for themselves and drivers.

Efficiency could also be found through the peloton, Smith says. It involves a driver, or even an automated vehicle, driving at the front of a fleet, closely followed by other vehicles, in order to improve fuel efficiency. Studies by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory have shown that the lead vehicles save up to 10% fuel at the closest separation distances, while the intermediate vehicle and following vehicles can save up to 10% fuel. 17% and 13% respectively. But Smith says there is still doubt about the importance of autonomy efficiency adjustments. “The opportunity returns to get the driver out of the vehicle,” he argues.

Still, Waymo believes autonomy could provide a solution to the efficiency issues the segment is currently facing. “With an optimized and reliable network of self-driving vehicles,” said a spokesperson, “fleets will be able to reduce the number of dead kilometers and improve efficiency for themselves and drivers.”

Fighting shortages

Autonomous trucks could even provide a solution to the driver shortage currently plaguing several markets, says Waymo. Shortages in the UK, which have led to congestion at ports and Christmas shortage warnings, threaten to spread to the rest of Europe. The European Association of Road Transporters (UETR) warned in a September 2021 statement that these shortages are already impacting supply chains, trade and the real economy across Europe. The United States is also suffering, where the pandemic has seen demand for goods soar and the supply of drivers simultaneously decline.

Volvo Trucks driver at the wheel
Several markets, including the UK and US, are currently struggling with severe shortages of truck drivers

“Waymo Via is able to help address the problem of driver shortages,” the company says. “It’s hard to get a person to spend a month in a truck at a time, away from home and family. And as the driver population ages into retirement, fewer young people are choosing to become truck drivers. Autonomous driving technology can provide a solution here and above all help to reduce this gap. “

Smith is skeptical that expanding CV autonomy would do a lot to address these shortages, however. “It’s probably not reliable enough in the short term to make a difference in the next two, three or four years,” he says. “The question becomes: is it a structural problem or is it a temporary problem? I think it’s more structural than temporary for the United States.

All roads are not created equal

Some roads may be more conducive to driverless trucks. For example, it might be easier to imagine fully autonomous vehicles traveling on long, mostly empty roads on the Canadian Prairies, or on German highways, where the roads are well maintained and the rules are generally well enforced. But on the majority of public roads in countries like the United States, removing drivers from trucks entirely isn’t a short-term possibility, Smith says.

In the meantime, autonomy may help motivate new drivers by making work more attractive. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), 90% of drivers leave in the first year because of difficult conditions. For example, drivers are generally paid by the mile rather than the hour, and are not paid for downtime. Having a partially autonomous driving system could make the long shifts required of drivers less relentless, thus reducing employee churn rate.

Bring back investors

Waymo is not the only truck manufacturer to spend a lot of money on its autonomous operation. Chinese self-driving company TuSimple has also partnered with Ryder and plans to expand to the east coast at the end of 2022. In June 2021, the company built a new facility in Texas in the early stages of development. ‘a three-phase plan to achieve a self-sustaining country on the scale of the United States. freight network (AFN) by 2024. In the same month, Amazon bought a fleet of 1,000 autonomous trucks from Plus and subscribed to a 20% stock option in the company, marking a significant investment in autonomous trucking. Investments are also taking place in Asia: the American start-up Kodiak Robotics announced a partnership with the South Korean company SK Group in May 2021, to explore the deployment of its technology in Asia.

A few years ago, some investors left the AV segment in search of other ventures when they realized the benefits would only be realized in the long term, Smith recalls. But those same investors may well be drawn to the strong prospects of autonomous trucking, he adds. “It will be interesting to see if connected automated vehicles gain momentum as people turn to highways. “

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