The reduced gap between vehicles improves aerodynamics of all trucks in a platoon, leading to significant fuel savings. (Source: PACCAR)
The reduced gap between vehicles improves aerodynamics of all trucks in a platoon, leading to significant fuel savings. (Source: PACCAR)
On the Road to Automated Commercial Vehicles

The opening day of this year’s SAE 2016 Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress on Oct. 4 will feature two commercial vehicle hot topics—autonomous commercial vehicles and greenhouse gas technology. In the Autonomous Commercial Vehicles Symposium: Promises and Challenges session, representatives from government, industry, national labs, and academia will present commercial vehicle activities currently taking place and discuss the potential evolution from today’s advanced driver assistance systems to higher levels of automation. Higher levels of automation, such as platooning and automated yard operations to name a few, will lead to significant improvements in safety and a more highly connected and efficient transportation system. SAE International recently spoke with session organizer Alan Korn, retired, Director, Vehicle Dynamics and Control at Meritor Wabco, to discuss the symposium and the prospect of a more highly automated CV future.

How would you characterize the current level of automation in the commercial vehicle industry?

On the trucking side of things and the passenger car side of the things, we’re more or less at a Level 1 SAE—driver assistance systems. The driver is almost always in control of steering and at times there are brief interruptions in braking for stability control or even in the throttle for adaptive cruise control. Now, especially in the passenger car side, we’re starting to move toward Level 2, which is partial automation. That’s where at least for periods of time the control system is going to be responsible for all levels of control of the vehicle—steering, acceleration, and deceleration; however, the human has to be there as the monitoring for the system, so if something happens and the system can’t deal with it, the human is going to have to intervene. Gradually, we’re going to move to higher and higher levels of automation.

What are some of the differences for autonomous commercial vehicles, as compared to passenger cars?

On the commercial side, this is a business. People buy trucks, and trucks are used in business-oriented activities. For automation to take off on heavy trucks, there has to be a payback for the purchaser of that technology. Safety pays. The only reason we’re selling collision-engagement systems today at very high volumes in the trucking industry is because there’s a payback in reducing crashes. The fleets realize that. Whenever the industry comes up with a technology, a higher level of automation is certainly one of them, fleets are going to have to assess what is the business case for that level of technology and balance the value of that technology vs. the cost and then make a business decision on whether it’s worthwhile or not. People who are buying Teslas are keen on technology, so the payback analysis on the passenger car side is a little different than on the commercial vehicle side.

On commercial vehicles, especially on tractor trailers, the challenge is larger. Here we have two units, the power unit (the tractor) and a non-power unit (a trailer). You need two units that have to work together, and these are articulated vehicles, so the challenge of highly automating these vehicles is going to be higher on this type of vehicle than on a passenger car. With an 80,000-lb vehicle carrying high values of freight, we’re going to have to make sure this technology is fool-proof, so it’s probably going to take us a little bit longer, and what I think you’re going to start to see is levels of technology being introduced. You will gradually see higher and higher levels of automation taking place on heavy trucks. To the point where one day you might have trucks going down the road without drivers, but that’s so far in the future, I believe, that we don’t really need to focus on that right now.

What are some of the other operator-assist features that we’ll soon begin seeing on vehicles?

There are two types of levels of steering assist. One could be a lane-keeping assist where the vehicle starts to deviate from the lane without the driver really intending for that to happen. This system can do a self-centering type of maneuver where it will temporarily intervene and try to re-center the vehicle in the lane. The bigger step would be in certain conditions, and this was shown on the Freightliner Inspiration vehicle, where the driver can cede lateral control, or steering control, to the technology. If you’re in a platooning event and the driver is comfortable, the traffic conditions are acceptable, and the weather conditions are acceptable, the driver can maybe engage the automatic steering, and in this case, theoretically, the vehicle would just steer on its own and it would maybe just follow a lead vehicle and the driver would be there to monitor the situation but won’t be responsible for keeping that vehicle centered in the lane. It will be in full-time control while the vehicle is in a platooning environment.

What are some of the main benefits in terms of platooning?  

When you’re going at highway speeds, aerodynamic drag is eating up a lot of your fuel. If you can run vehicles close together, you can make the overall platooning train much more aerodynamically efficient. You even have improvement of the lead vehicle because you reduce the aerodynamic drag in the back of that vehicle. For a following vehicle, you could see improvement of anywhere from 6-9% in fuel economy. It can be tremendously advantageous, if we can do it reliably. I believe in the near term we’ll be able to achieve that. In addition, one of the advantages, especially in the future where you can have more and more vehicles in the platooning environment, is the throughput on the highways. One of the main reasons you see traffic jams is you see acceleration/deceleration, acceleration/deceleration. In a platooning environment, to achieve that high level of fuel economy what you want to do is run at a constant speed. By doing that, you improve throughput on the highway and less acceleration/deceleration will also help the traffic situation.

What are some of the lessons learned thus far in autonomous technology from the mining and agricultural spaces?

One of the key lessons learned is that this is very achievable. In the mining environment, you don’t have a traffic situation, so you don’t have that level of challenge, however, you have lots of other challenges. These roads are not very wide, there are lots of people around. One key lesson learned is that this can be done. Same thing in the agricultural environment. There are tractors running now, more or less, autonomously. What we know is this can be achieved; this is not a pipe dream. Obviously, the levels of control and the ability to achieve those levels of control, a lot of that technology is going to port to the heavy truck, the commercial vehicle, and the on-road commercial vehicle. The same thing is on the passenger side. Sensors that are in high-volume demand for light vehicles are starting to be used in heavy vehicles as well. What that does is makes the system more affordable.