Driverless big rigs headed for the highway

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In the opening of Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film Duel, an impatient salesman gets stuck behind a rattling, soot-belching tractor-trailer on a lonely stretch of California highway. Just before the truck’s driver is revealed to be a homicidal maniac, the salesman has time to gripe about the vehicle’s billowing emissions. “Talk about pollution,” he coughs as he is enveloped in the rig’s thick, black smoke.

Pollution in the trucking industry has long been a public issue, and it’s one that certainly didn’t end when the first federal emission limits were introduced in 1974. For good reason: heavy- and medium-duty trucks, which include everything from ambulances and garbage trucks to cement mixers and semis, make up nearly a quarter of all US greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation, according to the US transportation department.

Put another way, these trucks add 1.6bn metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions into the atmosphere annually, accounting for 5.75% of emissions globally, according to a 2012 Carbon War Room report (pdf). In the US, trucking accounts for 18% of all oil combustion, or about 3.8m barrels daily, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit focused on efficient resource use. And the trucking market is only expected to grow.

“If this sector enjoys growth as high as is predicted, the emissions from commercial trucking alone will jeopardize the world’s chance of meeting key climate-stabilization targets,” according to the War Room report.

All this helps explain why, while past work has largely focused on getting particulates out of the air and people’s lungs, in recent years, the war on soot has shifted into one on greenhouse gases.

In 2011, the Obama administration rolled out the first ever fuel-efficiency rules for Class 8 trucks, the heaviest vehicles on the road. The rules require some of the heavy-duty vehicles to improve fuel efficiency 23% by 2018, and call for up to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions from 2010 baselines by 2017. The administration claims the rules will save truck users $50bn in avoided fuel costsover the trucks’ lifetimes. Even tougher standards are expected to be finalized next year.

The standards are driving a market for new technologies, such as driverless trucks, speed-limiting engines and what’s called “automated manual” transmission, that could help make trucking more fuel-efficient., a product of NACFE and Carbon War Room, late last year listed roughly 70 technologies that could help reduce emissions and cut fuel consumption.

If 40 of those devices and driver strategies were employed together, it could cut a truck’s average annual fuel cost of $70,000 almost in half, said Mike Roeth, trucking operations lead at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, which is partnering with Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room to make trucking more fuel efficient.

Driverless trucks

Daimler AG unveiled a prototype driverless truck at last year’s International Commercial Vehicles show in Hannover, Germany, for example. With a sleek, extended tractor front and an array of LED lights that replace traditional headlights, Daimler claims its Future Truck 2025 could be the next generation in trucking – and could reduce fuel consumption and related emissions while improving safety.

The big rig bristles with communications technology: it navigates using its Highway Pilot system, enabled by a collection of cameras and radar sensors, while continuously transmitting its position to other drivers and traffic control centers. For times when it has a driver behind the wheel, the truck also has a Blind Spot Assist feature to help with lane changing and to alert drivers about other vehicles and stationary objects on the road.

From a technology standpoint, anyway, driverless trucks may not be far off: many cars on the road today already have collision and lane-changing assistance, and manufacturers are increasingly installing collision-avoidance systems to help stabilize trucks when they are at risk of rolling over – and to warn drivers when they are drifting out of their lanes.

For trucks already on the road, manufacturers are working to reduce idling time, which can eat up half a truck’s operational time and 8% of its fuel. Drivers often leave their truck engines idling in order to heat or cool their vehicles while they sleep, but some new engines automatically shut down when the weather isn’t hot or cold enough to warrant running the heating or air conditioning.

“It’s really small gains across the whole truck, a lot of small opportunities,” said Mike Roeth, trucking operations lead at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, which partners with Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room to make trucking more fuel efficient.

Automated manual transmissions

By adopting many of these solutions, some fleets – notably Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution – have managed to top nine miles per gallon, compared to the long-standing industry average of six mpg. A demonstration truck from Peterbuilt Motors has reached 10.7 mpg.

The Evolution line itself has evolved its efficiency features from 2007, when it first arrived on the scene. In 2014, it added what’s called “automated manual transmissions” to all of its trucks.

Unlike fully automatic transmissions, which use hydraulic pressure – and a torque converter – to change gears, automated manual transmissions transmit power through metal gears, which makes them more fuel efficient.

These transmissions, which – like automatic transmissions – take the responsibility for shifting gears away from drivers, are more expensive, but can vastly increase efficiency. TJ Reed, Freightliner’s director of product strategy, said that their widespread use has been a game changer for the company.

“We were fully ramped up in 2014 and it’s really amazing. The market is significantly switching from manuals,” Reed told the Guardian. “The concept of running at a lower RPM, that’s going to be a key driver of fuel economy in the future and the automated manual transmission is a technology that enables that.”

‘The human factor’

While Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz group expects its autonomous trucks to appear on roadways by 2025, others caution that it will take years before they enjoy a substantial presence. “We’re still going to have the human factor, at least for the foreseeable future,” said Yishai Horn, head of marketing for Green Road, a maker of trucking components for short- and long-haul companies.

Green Road works with companies to improve driver performance by providing real-time warnings about unsafe or inefficient driving and poor fuel efficiency resulting from high speeds and excessive idling. This sort of attention has led not only to better fuel economy and savings, but also to fewer collisions, Horn said.

These advances – particularly increased automation – could result in a major improvement in road safety. Sleepy truck drivers, bad brakes and the sheer size of tractor trailers contribute to thousands of deaths per year – 3,602 in 2013 – from truck crashes on US roadways, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That’s down from 3,992 deaths in truck-related crashes in 1997 and more than 4,000 in 1979. According to Eric Teoh, a senior statistician at the IIHS, some of that reduction may be due to the growing use of speed limiting devices, which, he said, may become federally mandated in the near future.

“We haven’t studied [speed limiters] directly, but we know that as speed goes up so do the risk of crashing and the severity of crashes,” he said. A recent IIHS report concludes that the use of a combination of four crash avoidance features could prevent one of every five fatal crashes.

Are the robots taking over?

Behind all these gains stands automation, Roeth said. “You can spend a lot of time training a driver to shift at the right point, not accelerating so much, and [limiting] speed,” he said. “Or you can do an automated manual transmission, which will shift when it should. You can program the engine so it can’t speed over 65 miles an hour. And you can severely limit some of the actions the driver can take with regard to acceleration.”

“We’re moving from drivers having a lot of work to do, to less work to do, to basically nothing to do,” he said.

Well, not exactly nothing.

Some jobs will remain purely manual affairs, she said, such as passing other vehicles and exiting the highway. “The driver can always decide freely whether to take personal control or leave things to the technology.”

Leitner offers an interesting vision of the meeting of man and machine. But if recent gains are any indication, the message is fairly clear: for more fuel savings, let the robot drive.


Originally published at Guardian Sustainable Business.