Smart Logistics Robots on the Road

For all the buzz around self-driving cars, the bigger benefits will come from trucks, including faster deliveries, lower fuel use and less gridlock.
Quelle: Scania
Trucks in self-driving convoys will save fuel and reduce gridlock. Tests are underway on the autobahn. /

Trucks clogging highways and tying up traffic don’t just frustrate car drivers. Delayed shipments waste time and fuel, and often represent a weak link in the supply chain. Germany — whose location at the center of Europe means its highways are already clogged with cargo crisscrossing the continent — can expect road freight to triple yet again by 2050.

To keep traffic from coming to a complete standstill, truck manufacturers like Daimler, Scania and Volvo are betting on connectivity. Their goal is to move more freight faster and use fewer trucks. Unlike digital services for cars that might be exciting for consumers but uncertain in terms of profitable business models, the bu-siness case for connected trucks is obvious.

Truck makers calculate, for example, that the average truck is only on the road for a third of its time. The rest is spent at freight terminals and customs checks, on main-tenance or in traffic jams. If trucks could exchange information more efficiently, they could more easily coordinate shipments and increase the time they travel fully loaded.

To save fuel, truck makers are testing “platoons” — convoys of trucks traveling very closely behind each other and piloted with self-driving systems connected in real time. Trucks traveling slipstream to avoid headwinds can dramatically reduce fuel consumption, says Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler Trucks.

Just recently, Daimler tested such a platoon on the A52 autobahn between Düsseldorf and Essen, one of Germany’s busiest. Traveling at identical speeds at a distance of only 15 meters (the legal minimum would have been 50), the trucks saved 7 percent of fuel on average.

The longer the convoy and closer the distance, the higher the savings. Other truck makers are testing distances between trucks of just a few meters.

Daimler’s goal is for any truck on the road to be able to platoon with any other truck, potentially creating massive savings all across the industry. The technology, based on WiFi, is straightforward.

Much more important, says Bernhard, is for the major truck makers to negotiate a common wireless communication protocol so that trucks of different makes can talk to each other and set up a platoon. And some traffic regulations will have to be changed, for example those requiring minimum safety distances between vehicles.

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Features like platooning only require a local wireless connection between indivi-dual trucks. But for trucks to be always connected and monitored — not to mention the provision of digital services for passenger cars — the major bottleneck is poor internet coverage along highways outside the major cities. “We’re simply behind the times,” says Bernhard. “If I had one wish, it would be better internet access on roads. Otherwise, I don’t see real obstacles.”

That’s why Daimler is pushing ahead fast. The company recently set up a new unit of 200 IT specialists working on nothing but online technology and services for trucks. By 2020, Daimler Trucks intends to invest €500 million ($570 million) in internet technology. Bernhard expects the platooning feature and other forms of semi-autonomous driving to be ready for mass production in just a few years.

Because the business case is so clear — more efficient logistics directly benefits a company’s bottom line — Bernhard expects fully networked, semi-autonomous driving to spread much faster in trucks than in passenger cars. “We have it easier than our colleagues in the passenger-car area,” Bernhard says. “We don’t deal with individual drivers. Our customers have large fleets that can be upgraded relatively inexpensively. So we expect that the technology will expand more quickly.”

Bernhard says trucks will still need drivers. But safety will be improved, too, by self-driving technology that doesn’t get tired or distracted like drivers do. Tightly organized, self-driving platoons also free up precious space on the road. A convoy of three trucks, for example, is 80 meters long or less, compared to 150 meters when they travel at a normal distance behind each other.

Beyond Europe, Daimler sees huge potential for more efficient, digitally networked trucking fleets in countries like Brazil and India, where roadways are clogged, freight deliveries are inefficient, and truck accidents are very common. “It’s a mistake to view this as a technology only for established markets,” Bernhard says. “The potential in emerging markets is probably far greater.”

Sebastian Schaal covers automobile technology for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche.