Self-driving vehicles

Trucks On Autopilot

truck convoy damiler
Daimler demonstrated earlier this year an autonomous driving convoy.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    It will be a long time before self-driving buses and trucks are allowed on the road, but in the meantime, vehicle makers are offering other technologies designed to improve transport efficiency.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The IAA Commercial Vehicles fair is being held in Hannover this week.
    • A Roland Berger study suggests computers will not be taking the wheel on a larger scale until about 2030.
    • Until there is real market demand for self driving buses and trucks, it will remain commercially difficult to upgrade large vehicles
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    Audio

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Discussions at the IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show in Hanover usually revolve around horsepower and cargo capacity. But this year’s event is filled with buzz over concepts like connectivity and networking.

The trucks and buses on display, packed with sensors, motherboards and advanced chips, are becoming more like computers on wheels. The suppliers already are jockeying for the pole position in the industry’s race to transport people and cargo without a driver.

“Manufacturers and suppliers that want to be major players in autonomous driving need to start collecting practical experience  now with the necessary technical systems,” said Norbert Dressler, a partner at management consultants Roland Berger.

Analysts see a potential market worth billions. Numerous shipping and transportation companies are longing for the day when they no longer need to rely on human drivers.

 

Trucks that are networked together form a convoy, with only the driver of the first truck actively driving. The following trucks are driven automatically

Prototypes like Daimler’s Future Truck and driverless minibuses are already being tested, market research conducted by Roland Berger suggests that computers will not be taking the wheel on a larger scale until about 2030.

“It will take time for the legal framework to be revised and the technology to achieve the necessary maturity,” Mr. Dressler said. “The weight of the vehicles alone raises much bigger concerns (with trucks) than with cars.”  Accidents involving large commercial vehicles, he warned could be much more serious than with self driving cars.

Until the legal and other technical issues are resolved, it will remain an uphill battle for self-driving buses and trucks, according to Mr. Dressler. Vehicle makers will need to prove the added value of snsors, radar systems and cameras to the logistics sector, which is extremely price sensitive.

Daimler, for example, is using the IAA to launch Mercedes-Benz Uptime, a system that uses mobile communications to transmit sensor data from trucks for remote diagnosis. Algorithms calculate when trucks are due for service. “This makes it possible to minimize unplanned breakdowns,” said Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, head of digital solutions and services at Mercedes-Benz Trucks. “The service gives users direct economic added value.”

Competitor MAN also aims to help customers save money through networking. Its GPS-controlled cruise control system, Efficient Cruise, automatically adapts the driving style to the topography on a given route. Control devices accelerate the truck before an incline.

MAN is integrating dynamic data with the help of Continental’s eHorizon sensor system, which incorporates information about traffic jams and sends information about obstacles to network trucks. Continental claims the technology also reduces fuel consumption by up to 6 percent.

Wolfgang Bernhard, Vorstandsmitglied der Daimler AG und Leiter des Geschäftsfeldes Daimler Trucks & Buses - Julian stratenschulte dpa
Source: Wolgang Bernhard, the board member in charge of Daimler’s truck and bus, division is prompting the company’s autonomous driving technology at the IAA trade show. Source: Julian stratenschulte/DPA

 

“Efficiency is an important driver of new digital solutions,” said Michael Ruf, head of Continental’s commercial vehicles business unit. “From the customer’s standpoint, each additional component needs to pay for itself within two years.”

Safety functions will make it possible to reduce insurance premiums and the frequency of breakdowns. With one of these functions, the head-up display, Continental provides vehicle information in the driver’s field of vision. In the future, new radar and camera systems will alert the driver to the presence of pedestrians and cyclists during right-hand turns in city traffic.

These assistance systems are considered to be the technical basis of autonomous driving. “But more than sensors and software will be needed,” said Detlef Hug, a spokesman for brake manufacturer Knorr-Bremse. The components, he noted, need the right actuators to quickly and reliably implement commands from the computer.

At the IAA, automobile supplier Knorr-Bremse is showing electronic control systems that communicate with the transmission or the brakes. According to Mr. Hug, solutions are also needed to ensure that if systems fail, the vehicle is guided to the emergency lane and the brakes are applied.

Truck and bus makers expect partially autonomous driving solutions, which will likely be allowed sooner than fully autonomous driving, to provide a boost for the technology. The potential to save money would justify initial investments, they argue.

Knorr-Bremse, for example, has developed a prototype partially autonomous driving solution that guides trucks into loading docks precisely and safely without a driver.

So-called “platooning” is another promising solution. Trucks that are networked together form a convoy, with only the driver of the first truck actively driving. The following trucks are driven automatically, enabling them to keep smaller distances between each other. In April, Volvo, Daimler, MAN, Iveco, Scania and DAF successfully demonstrated the solution on a trip to Rottersdam. The manufacturers claim platooning will reduce fuel consumption and enhance safety.

Mr. Dressler said the industry is pushing for the period of time drivers spend in the connected trucks to be recognized as relaxation time. This would enable truck drivers to drive longer distances without exceeding the allowable number of hours at the wheel.

With applications like platooning, manufacturers hope not only to sell more trucks, but also to offer new services. For instance, they could help trucking companies automatically form convoys, and enable them to invoice each other for the trips, so that the benefits of traveling in the slipstream are fairly allocated.

“We increasingly need to see ourselves as a service company,” said Daimler manager Gerd tom Markotten. “The only way we will survive in the long term is by providing hardware in combination with digitization services.”

Forerunners of the new self-image are on display at the IAA. Mercedes-Benz is introducing its new App Store. The application is docked to the Fleetboard telematics solution, which is currently used primarily for route mapping and transport management. Like smartphone maker Apple, the truck maker is allowing third-party providers to market their products through its App Store.

“Digital solutions are becoming a distinguishing feature,” Ms. Gerd tom Markotten said. “But we cannot implement all ideas on our own. That’s why, for the first time, we are opening up our platform to third-party providers, in order to find solutions that are useful and efficient for our customers.”

The new App Store is opening with 14 apps. One app allows long-distance truckers to reserve parking space, while another serves as a cargo market. An app provided by truck body maker is down-to-earth in a very literal sense. The Conical Pile app calculates what the pile looks like when sand, grain and similar goods are unloaded.

 

Steffen Ermisch is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: ermisch@handelsblatt.com

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