Whale Watching: Are We Ready For An Autonomous Big-Rig Future?
Are We Ready for an Autonomous Big-Rig Future?
When William Fries and Chip Davismade the song “Convoy” in the mid-’70s, the closest thing to a self-driving truck was an Australian road train or a Rose Parade float.
But what meant a radio hit or line of military vehicles cruising down the road then is morphing into a similarly military-esque term—platooning—to describe a group of trucks cruising down the road, linked together by cloud-connected powertrains and driven (or at least throttled, braked and steered) by software.
The aim of course is improved efficiency, currently seven percent for two trucks operating in tandem—4 1/2 percent for the lead truck and 10 percent for the following truck. The players in this game, which is spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, are Peterbilt Motors Company (Model 579 tractors), Cummins Engine Company (powerplants and engineering), Peleton Technology (connected car automation), ZF TRW (steering systems), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Cummins Power Lab at Purdue University, and the University of Arizona.
The primary benefit to platooning has to do with drafting. I’ll admit I’ve participated in vehicle-convoy drafting, done only with people I know well in lightly traveled areas and often at night where you can see oncoming traffic sooner. A 1.6L Suzuki Sidekick was capable of quite surprising speeds a car length or two behind a fullsize pickup, and you drove with one foot lightly on the gas, one hovering over the brake, and used very little gas in the process. Pairing up two pickups cut consumption too.
So it’s easy for anyone who’s watched drafting in an auto race (or who has participated in a little lead-follow on the highway) to see how platooning could save fuel, and with autonomous trucks, it’s safer too, at least until some knot-head thinks 30 feet is a good place to go through to an exit identified two miles earlier. This also assumes the autonomous operation is smart enough to do that might be technically illegal, like cross a solid lane marking to avoid a utility or maintenance vehicle.
There are a few actuators of course, but most of this relies on software, which to a great extent, is permitted for testing on public roads in a few states or regions. And since the first line of code was written, software (or perhaps the hardware tied to it) has been subject to glitches. Think about the last glitch you observed, were frustrated by or that cost you time and/or money. Was it a major airline’s computer system “malfunction,” which rendered many of their employees or airplanes unable to do anything? Your phone/tablet/computer “freezing” just when you wanted to click “BUY!” on that auction site? Uber’s red-light runner in San Francisco? Dropped after being on hold for a utility company or the IRS?
Get the software wrong on a trio of 40-ton trucks and the consequences could be disastrous. Tie a long line together and when a bozo car pilot tangles with the leader and everything doesn’t go perfectly—maybe an antenna gets knocked loose in the initial collision or it happens beneath an overpass where the cloud might lose a signal like your satellite radio, and they’re going to feel it the next county over. So here’s hoping they get it right, with no real-world testing that hurts real-world people—you know, like the ones doing the mannequin challenge in the adjacent cubicle.
And if you think I’m being hard on Silicon Valley, the autonomous car I last rode in was a helluva lot better than many of the “professional automotive journalists” I often ride with.