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Autonomous workhorses

Conventional freight transport could soon be a thing of the past. MAN and Scania are using platooning and self-driving trucks to test globally networked transport solutions. A look behind the scenes.

On the highways of the german state hesse, the future has already arrived. Or more precisely: It has arrived on the shoulders of the road. Since September 2017, work trucks from man have safeguarded mobile roadworks crews there in a test setting. They follow behind clearing vehicles at a distance of 150 meters and warn other road users. The small trucks stop when the preceding vehicle stops – and start up again when the work resumes. But there is one thing you won’t find in the driver’s cab: the driver.

Driving the protection vehicle is not a popular job. Traffic is loud as it streams by the mobile roadworks at practically arm's length. Accidents with working vehicles occur regularly on highways – often they are rear-impact crashes. The pilot project with the Federal Highway Research Institute and MAN Truck & Bus will run until summer 2018 and is also intended to effectively protect workers along highways.

The driverless protection vehicle is controlled by the driver of the mowing vehicle using car-to-car communication. A prerequisite for this is a man-machine interface in both vehicles that was developed by MAN Truck & Bus. If the procession approaches a driveway, the front vehicle stops and waits for the protection vehicle. They form a platoon and cross the driveway as though coupled together. Afterwards, the work truck resumes its place in front. To keep the protection vehicle from accidentally moving into traffic, it has to recognize traffic lanes and register its surroundings. This is taken care of by sensors such as radar, lasers and cameras.

Machine is superior to man

Self-driving heavy transporters
Scania trucks are already semi-autonomously underway in some mines. The work in test fields will be fully autonomous by the end of 2017.

There are also other instances in which autonomous and semi-autonomous driving could contribute to improved safety on the road. A look at accident statistics: Every year, 35,000 people in Europe die in traffic accidents; trucks are involved in ten percent of these. Today’s trucks already have technical answers
for many accident risks: lane assistance, ultrasonic systems, emergency brake assistance. An example with a Scania platoon: The superiority of the machine becomes obvious when you observe an emergency braking maneuver by three trucks following closely behind one another. When the first truck begins braking, the trucks behind activate their brakes at the same time. The speed of information clearly surpasses man's reaction time.

Other benefits of the new technology: Through vehicle networking and intelligent software, which uses gps to guide the fleet of trucks through traffic, drive times are optimized and utilization rates improved. There is less stress at the wheel, and fuel consumption and emissions are significantly reduced. Finally, traffic jams, which contribute to billions of euros in costs each year, can be prevented.

Autonomous trucks on public streets could be the norm in just a few years. Scania has already launched autonomous concepts in enclosed industrial areas. “We chose industry applications as a business case because the economic potential there is very high,” explains Tom Nyström, head engineer for Autonomous Transport Solutions at Scania. Trucks and buses are seen as elements of a major transport concept. “We are talking about a complete system including logistics, the definition of tasks for the vehicles, the exchange of information and data between them, the entire infrastructure,” adds Nyström.

“Transport solutions will be tailored for the customer.”

Mines and ports as endurance tests

In view of this, Scania developed self-driving trucks that carry out specific, pre-programmed tasks in enclosed areas such as ports in Singapore or in mines. They serve loading stations and take containers to their destination. The tests have been promising and the machines should be working in the test fields completely autonomously by the end of 2017. They are equipped with a number of sensors and their positions are tracked. All data flows into a tower, from which the driver of the future – more like a pilot – navigates his vehicle. Furthermore, Scania is working on the bus transport of the future. Since summer 2017, self-driving buses have been on the test track in Södertälje, south of Stockholm.

Platooning is currently the buzzword of the transport industry. In the spring of 2018, MAN Truck & Bus and logistics company db Schenker will be taking the concept to the street. Two man trucks will regularly drive in a platoon on the A9 highway test field between Munich and Nuremberg. The project has received €2 million in funding from the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. For the first time, measurements performed over an extended period in real traffic conditions will make it possible to determine the time at which it pays to switch from normal driving mode to platooning.

Economical thanks to the slipstream

In the project phase, two trucks will drive from one db Schenker logistics center to another. Regular truck drivers sit behind the wheel. The trucks are controlled manually from the logistics facility to the highway, then switch to platoon mode on the highway. An electronic drawbar is used for the car-to-car communication. The lead truck is steered by a driver. In the rear truck, which maintains a distance of only 15 meters at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the driver takes control when necessary. The truck bodies are now designed such that they can use up to 30 percent less energy by driving in the slipstream. It is still unclear what effects heavy traffic, cutting cars, and wind and weather can have. As soon as sufficient data is available, experts will be able provide valid estimates of increased efficiency, fuel savings and driver relief.

Will people trust the electronics?

The tests are also aimed at the truckers themselves. This is why MAN Truck & Bus has its drivers accompanied by scientists from Fresenius University. How will it feel to drive closer than usual to the truck in front? Will it be natural to trust the electronic drawbar? “Right from the beginning, it is important to have the people involved who are predominantly affected by the development,” says Professor Christian T. Haas, Head of the Institute for Complex Health Research at Fresenius University. “The findings from our studies of the effects at the man-machine interface flow immediately back into the technological development and design of the working conditions.” The results will be available in two years at the latest. 

Platooning, autonomous port assistants or buses that find their stops without a driver: The future has long since made its way to our streets.

Figures machines with benefits

  1. 0.1 seconds

    is how long an automated system needs to react. A professional truck driver needs 1.4 seconds

  2. 80 meters

    Length of road required by three trucks with autonomous driving systems traveling in a convoy.

  3. 150 meters

    Length of road required by conventional truck traffic – particularly on highly traveled routes, which are a potential source of congestion.

  4. €32.6 billion

    was turned over in the transport of goods on Germany's roads in 2016. An upward trend: In 2010 the figure was €28.9 billion.

  5. 45,000 truck drivers

    Total shortage of drivers in the German logistics industry in September 2017. Automated systems 
could solve the personnel problem.

  6. 15 years

    is how long experts estimate it will take until fully automated, Level 5 systems are used in freight traffic.

Autonomy illustrated: Convoy 4.0 – How trucks drive in a platoon

  1. Advantages of the grouping

    Connected trucks driving a group have increased safety and reduced fuel consumption. Platooning stands for the electronic networking and coupling of trucks on highways and through roads.

  2. GPS antenna

    With the help of a gps satellite network, it is possible to determine their precise location. In addition, three-dimensional data of the route can be merged with current vehicle data.

  3. More efficient transport

    Only the first truck has to be manned with a driver – all following trucks are unmanned.

  4. Faster and safer

    The new technology improves safety. Computers react faster than people and don’t get tired.

  5. Stereo camera

    The area in front of the vehicle is monitored by a stereo camera on top of the railing behind the windshield. The stereo camera identifies single and multi-lane roadways, can precisely determine available spaces and registers the information on traffic signs.

  6. The distance

    Between trucks is only 15 meters. The required road space is thereby reduced by almost half.

  7. The electronic drawbar

    is used for car-to-car communication. The trucks continuously exchange information, which includes vehicle position, vehicle type, dimensions, direction of travel, speed, acceleration and braking maneuvers and curvatures.