Challenges in robotic semi-truck technology

TIP now offers moving floor semi-trailer solutions

If you had read Finland’s Kuljetusnet in March 2018, you would know that Chalmers and Volvo Group’s researchers have developed a driverless, autonomous trailer driven by an electric-powered dolly. You might naturally think that autonomous trucks and trailers will be seen on the road in the next few months.

However, there are still issues relating to technology, road infrastructure and other autonomous vehicle matters that need to be resolved before autonomous trucks grace our roads.

Technology

We are still at a relatively experimental stage of autonomous trucks. On open roads, these trucks remain semi-autonomous, requiring the presence of a driver to override the technology if necessary.

To navigate the traffic, roads and the surrounding environment safely, autonomous trucks need to use a selection of sensors fixed to various parts of the truck and trailer. Different companies are experimenting with different technologies. For example, Uber ATG, a division of Uber, which seeks to add hardware to existing semi-trucks to convert them into autonomous trucks, uses LIDAR technology (source: MIT Technology Review). TuSimple, a company with dual headquarters in China and the US is focused on technology that relies on cameras (source: Digital Trends). As The Economist points out, each of these technologies currently has strengths and weaknesses: “Cameras are cheap and see road markings, but cannot measure distance; radar can measure distance and velocity but cannot see in fine detail; LIDAR provides fine detail but is expensive and confused by the snow.”

Obstacles

With the data from its sensors, the technology needs to identify obstacles surrounding the truck including people, road signs, and other vehicles, predict what will happen and then respond. Autonomous vehicle technology is now capable of handling standard traffic situations and obstacles but still ill-equipped to handle exceptional traffic situations such as a broken-down car on the roadside or a fallen tree. Until these exceptional situations are mastered, there will be question marks over the safety of the autonomous truck technology.

We know that the technology for autonomous driving and logistics will be ready for daily use when the companies developing them can demonstrate that their sensors and code can match the skills and experience of professional truck drivers.

Road infrastructure

Until autonomous vehicle technology can handle exceptional circumstances in traffic flow, its application for trucks and logistics will be limited to specific types of road infrastructure, particularly in areas already been mapped out in detail and which have decent weather.

There are already autonomous trucks operating in very controlled environments such as shipping ports and large industrial sites. Container ports are ideal as they are sectioned off from the public for safety reasons and for customs purposes. Cargo ships load and unload in very consistent and linear ways. For example, in addition to testing on the roads in Arizona, TuSimple, a developer of autonomous truck technology is testing its technology in ports (see video). (source: Digital Trends)

A Chinese company Suning Logistics has just completed driving tests for its autonomous heavy-duty truck, “Strolling Dragon,” in Shanghai under “logistics campus tests and highway scenarios”.  (source: Daily Mail)

Also looking to the future is start-up Starsky Robotics. It has a vision of trucks driving autonomously on motorways and then being guided into urban areas remotely by people in monitoring centres.

Uber ATG envisages autonomous trucks operating solely on motorways with human drivers in trucks or light commercial vehicles loading the autonomous trucks at the start of their motorway journey and unloading them at the end of it, to complete the last mile delivery in urban areas. (source: Wired) To turn this approach into reality, our current road infrastructure will need to be adapted and/or rebuilt to accommodate autonomous vehicles and logistics. This is an area that is being researched in Europe by the EU under its CARTRE (“Coordination of Automated Road Transport Deployment for Europe”) project.

Other autonomous vehicle matters

Other matters still to be resolved include the issue of driverless technology and liability for insurance cover. EU standards for truck and trailer maintenance including testing for annual MoT need to be adjusted for autonomous driving technology. The advent of semi-autonomous trucks will require the alteration of the current truck driving licence syllabus. (Source of inspiration: Autoexpress)

Timing

When will autonomous truck technology become mainstream? This is the perennial question. An article entitled “Trucking and logistics will lead the autonomous vehicle revolution” in Trucks.com cites the predictions of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan, USA. It foresees self-driving vehicles which fit the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Level 4 (high automation with driver) and Level 5 (total automation) autonomous operation rankings as unlikely to reach 4% of new vehicle sales by 2030 but possibly reaching 55% by 2040.

Flexible trailer capacity, trailers equipped with the latest technology – the keys to success

Whether or not the world is ready for semi-autonomous or autonomous trucks, there will always be demand for transporters to carry large volumes of products in their trailers.  Having flexible trailer capacity with trailers that are equipped with the latest trailer technology are the keys to playing a successful part in the transport industry.

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