A Look at the Big Trucks of Tomorrow

We took a look at what’s been happening in the world of Class 8 (tractor-trailer) trucks, where those changes mirror those taking place in passenger cars, and where they differ.

There has been quite a bit of recent coverage in Design News about advances and innovations in the auto industry that have been making cars safer, more efficient, and less harmful to the environment. Many of these breakthroughs can also be applied to the world of heavy-duty trucking as well, but, it’s not as simple as plugging in the same technology in larger sizes. We spoke with Scott Perry, chief technology & procurement officer for Ryder, a leading trucking and logistics company located in Miami, about what’s been happening in the world of Class 8 (tractor-trailer) trucks, where those changes mirror those taking place in passenger cars, and where they differ.

According to Perry, perhaps the biggest technological difference between cars and big trucks, beyond the obvious, is the question of automatic transmissions. The effort required to create an autonomous version of the tractor-trailer that would be constrained to work with a manual transmission, would be an order of magnitude greater than the already formidable challenge of autonomous passenger cars. The need to anticipate acceleration and deceleration while navigating, steering, maintaining position in traffic, all while traveling up and down hills, would, given the additional response time and inertia involved, is a computational juggernaut. Add to that the cultural question of how truckers would feel about trading in their stick shifts for automatics and you have a real challenge.

Fortunately, that bridge has already been crossed, largely in the name of carbon reduction and fuel efficiency. This has occurred in response to EPA-mandated fuel economy improvements for 2018. Considering the number of factors required to determine the optimal shift points, even the most experienced drivers can only come close to matching the efficiency of an automatic. Some drivers have complained about handling on snow and ice. But given the numerous other factors such as reduced driver fatigue, allowing drivers to focus more on their surroundings, and more user-friendly operation, which is opening up the field to more new drivers, including women, Perry estimates that a tipping point will occur in the next year or two, where most new trucks will be built with automatics.

This really opens up the way toward autonomous trucks.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are five levels of autonomous trucks. These range from No Automation (Level 0), to Full self-driving (Level 4). The intermediate levels include function-specific automation, such as braking or stability control (Level 1); to combined-function automation (Level 2), where multiple systems are automated. Level 3 is limited self-driving automation, where drivers have the option of turning over control of safety critical functions, but remain involved in the process.

Several demonstration runs of autonomous semis have already taken place, including an Otto (recently acquired by Uber) truck delivering a Budweiser shipment on a 120-mile run from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Perry says this will clearly be a game-changer for the industry. As to how long it will take for the fleet to turn over, it could be as long as 20 years. But with a strongly positive ROI, the fleet

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