Is my 2020 date for fully autonomous self-driving trucks on the highways optimistic enough?

Every month, another test comes out, each more successful than the last. The latest Daimler tests showcased its new capabilities with a platoon of three “Pilot Connect-Equipped” Mercedes trucks on the German Autobahn.

Fuel efficiency improved 2% for the lead truck, 11% for the middle truck and 9% for the third in a platoon test.

Highway Wi-Fi Connect Enables Truck Platooning

Please consider Daimler Outlines Vision for the Future of Vehicle Connectivity.

“There is a revolution going on, and the truck is in its center,” said Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the Board of Management for Daimler AG, Daimler Trucks & Buses. “We have a vision of the future where the entire transportation process is completely seamless. Where the flow of goods on the road is mirrored by a flow of information from the internet in real time.”

Bernhard envisions a supply chain with completely digital information exchange between driver and shipper, a Formula 1-like service environment with parts and technicians on-hand to make repairs as the truck arrives, automatic rest stop reservations and routing when the vehicle senses the driver is fatigued, and exchange of information between vehicles and infrastructure.

Highway Pilot Connect enables truck platooning

As an example of increased connectivity, Daimler debuted its Highway Pilot Connect, the next step in it quest for autonomous truck operation. In an on-highway demonstration on the Autobahn on the outskirts of town, Daimler showcased its new capabilities with a platoon of three Highway Pilot Connect-equipped Mercedes Actros trucks.

Highway Pilot Connect builds on Daimler’s Highway Pilot autonomous truck platform it introduced last year but adds Wi-Fi communication for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, allowing all three vehicles to automatically adapt to changing traffic and road conditions.

In the demonstration, the following distance is reduced from 50 meters to 15 meters when the three trucks link into a single platoon, which Daimler says can decrease emissions and improve the combined fuel efficiency of the three vehicles by as much as 7 percent (2 percent improvement for the lead truck, 11 percent for the second truck and 9 percent for the third truck).

When a Mercedes passenger car entered the gap between the second and third truck, the Highway Pilot Connect automatically increased the following distance of the third truck to 50 meters until the car exited the lane, after which the system automatically closed the gap back to 15 meters.

Platooning Solves Problems

That last paragraph above is amusing because many people told me platooning would not work because cars could not get by.

My experience is the opposite. I am continually frustrated by trucks passing each other, one going 2 miles-per-hour faster than the one ahead of it, blocking up traffic for miles.

“Highway Pilot Connect is a perfect example to illustrate the possibilities in V2V communication,” said Sven Ennerst, head of product engineering & global procurement, Daimler Trucks. “Compared to Highway Pilot, Highway Pilot Connect unveils further fuel savings potential and reduces CO2 emissions and takes the burden off the shoulders of drivers on monotonous routes and will increase transport efficiencies in areas with low traffic density.”

Once again, there are backup drivers in these trucks. But those drivers will soon be unneeded.

Last Mile Concerns

Last-mile concerns and some loose ends on regulations are only thing holding up long-haul automation. Local drivers might be needed for the last mile.

I still envision large truck stop style facilities at major highway intersection points, near but well outside major city limits.

The intersection of I-80 and I-55 is the perfect spot for a truck service center hub.

Google Maps View of I55 I80 intersection

Perfect Spot for Truck Hub

Google Earth Shot of I55 I-80 Intersection

I55 I80

There is plenty of vacant space and farmland near the intersection of I55 and I80 to support a major truck hub should a last-mile or service-center hub solution be needed. Clearly more are needed, but there are ample spots in the Western and Southern states.

Farmland prices in key areas just might skyrocket.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock