The First Driverless Cars Will Actually be a Bunch of Trucks
Don't let Google hype confuse you: The future of automated vehicles is all about moving cargo, not people.
Tue, August 13, 2013
IDG News Service — Thanks to the blogosphere hype machine, most people associate automated, driverless vehicles with the cute, self-driving Google car. Google's technology is charming, and suggests an idyllic morning commute in which we're all chauffeured to work by robots. But the future of driverless vehicles is much more mundane.
Trucks. The future of driverless driving is all about trucks. So forget about that sensor-equipped Volkswagen Passat, and get ready for a 40-ton Peterbuilt 18-wheeler.
In the wake of new U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines for automated-vehicle testing, experts such as Amit Azguner, a professor with Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research, are predicting that the first wave of operational autonomous vehicles will be devoted to long-haul deliveries. This is about moving cargo, not people.
"The trucking industry is very interested in going from single trucks to convoys of trucks. One human driver with perhaps three other trucks behind it," Azguner told TechHive. "Those three wouldn't necessarily have a driver in them. Eventually you could imagine removing the first driver too."
The technology, which is being developed (and in some instances, deployed) for use right now, consists of a lead truck operated by a human driver followed in close formation by a small fleet of driverless vehicles "tethered" by a series of sensors.
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In late May, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened the door for road-testing self-driving trucks by publishing policies for the three states that currently allow driverless vehicles: California, Nevada, and Florida. These guidelines open the door for driverless tests of all kinds. Overseas, meanwhile, experiments with driverless truck convoys--also known as "platoons"--have been under way for years.
For example, the E.U.-sponsored Safe Road Trains for the Environment (or "SARTRE") program ran from 2009 to 2012, and employed a mixture of radar, fixed lasers, and cameras to create a platoon of highway vehicles featuring one lead vehicle--typically a truck--with a series of cars driving behind in close formation. The follow vehicles operated completely under the control of the lead truck, allowing drivers in the rear cars to sit back and enjoy the ride, completely hands-free.
SARTRE was created specifically with both trucks and cars in mind, but one of its principal architects sees greater feasibility in automated trucking.
"[Long-haul trucking] is the most realistic starting point for the commercial adoption of the technology. The long-haul vehicles have the most to gain, both in terms of safety and economic benefits," says Mike Baker, the chief engineer at Ricardo UK Ltd, the lead firm of SARTRE. "The fuel savings witnessed by trucks in a platoon has a significant impact on the operating profits of the operator, not to mention the environmental impact of reduced CO2 and emissions."