Lorries which automatically drive in convoy – known as platooning – are nearly ready for the market. The first fully autonomous test vehicles are already on the roads. Forwarders and manufacturers are hoping for a significant reduction in operating costs.
Strict legal regulations regarding driving times and safety regulations, personnel shortages, rising operating costs – the transport sector has been struggling with the same problems for a long time. Most of these could be solved through the use of autonomous lorries.
Platooning: The final development stage
“We are getting closer to a point where lorries will be increasingly controlled by technological intelligence, starting on motorways to begin with,” says Norbert Dressler, Senior Partner at Roland Berger and commercial vehicles expert. “This will represent the final stage in an incremental, 15+ year developmental process with a gradual reduction of driver engagement. While driver assistance systems such as ACC or Lane Keep Assist are already implemented in many trucks, automated vehicle operation will be possible in the final stage (level 5 or full automation) under all traffic conditions and potentially no longer needing a driver.” Each stage of higher automation brings with it higher system complexity and increasing costs, ranging from 1,800 dollars per truck to implement level 1 to 23,400 dollars per truck all the way to the final level 5. A key driver behind the high cost is software, which accounts for approximately 85 per cent of total cost. “All manufacturers are already working on new solutions to counteract the pressure of digitalisation and new competitors,” says Romed Kelp, expert for the commercial vehicle industry at global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. “They all have prototypes on the road and are investing hundreds of millions in digital technologies.” Vehicles from major European manufacturers are already travelling in electronic convoys in initial inter-brand platooning demonstrations. Platooning is an on-board system for road transport where two or more truck-trailer combinations are driven one behind the other a short distance apart, using current technical driving assistance and control systems as well as car-to-car communication. Far from compromising road safety, this actually increases it. The distance between the vehicles is about ten metres or around half a second’s driving time. All the vehicles travelling in the platoon – the whole group of articulated lorries – are connected by an “electronic towing bar”. During the drive, the first vehicle sets the speed and direction of travel. The necessary commands are transmitted to the following vehicles via the car-to-car communication technology. These also send data back to the towing vehicle. A wireless connection with a frequency of 5.9 GHz is used for the car-to-car communication. Diesel consumption and CO2 emissions can be reduced by up to ten per cent.
-15 % fuel consumption and co2 emissions is the reduction through platooning
Autonomous driving on the highway
The first fully autonomous test vehicles are already out on the roads as well: in fact, the world’s first autonomous HGV – the Freightliner Inspiration Truck – received a road-driving permit for the US state of Nevada back in 2015. As soon as the HGV has safely reached the motorway, the driver can activate the Highway Pilot system. The vehicle switches to autonomous mode and adapts to the speed of the traffic. Highway Pilot uses a complex set of cameras and radar systems with lane-keeping and collision-prevention functions to brake, steer and regulate the speed. This combination of systems creates an autonomous vehicle which operates safely under all kinds of driving conditions; for example, the HGV automatically observes the legal speed limit, regulates the prescribed distance from the vehicle in front and uses the stop-and-go function during rush hour. Highway Pilot does not initiate autonomous overtaking manoeuvres – these must be carried out by the driver. The same applies to exiting the motorway and changing lanes.
Platooning: A wide range of savings
Although the costs for the technology are high, the operating costs will decrease with autonomous driving functions: “Fuel and driver cost savings are the main factors in payback of the initial investments,” says Roland Berger expert Dressler. The industry does not have to wait until the final automation stage to achieve savings: fuel cost savings of around six per cent are already possible in level 1 (through platooning, for example). The main cost reduction will come into effect in level 4, where the driver can take required rest breaks during automated driving. Driver costs will thus drop by a further six per cent. In level 5, when long-haul lorries don’t require a driver at all, driver costs will be reduced by as much as 90 per cent. Further savings result from lower insurance costs as automated driving enhances safety: and the number of HGV accidents could drop by 90 per cent by 2040.