Emerging Automated Trucking Applications
Jeff Loftus, Division Chief of the Technology Division at the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), presented Emerging Automated Trucking Applications during the Impacts of Advanced Vehicle Technology class at the NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting on October 9, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The FMCSA is the regulator for the trucking and motorcoach industries, one of several surface modal agencies within DOT. Its role is to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving these commercial motor vehicles (CMV).
Mr. Loftus provided a snapshot of the CMV industry. There are more than 560,000 regulated carriers in the US, of which 90-95 percent have ten vehicles or less. Collectively, these carriers travel 315 billion miles a year and employ over 6 million CMV drivers. There are over 12 million heavy trucks registered, which transport over 11.5 billion tons of freight per year. Motorcoaches are bus services that cross state lines for scheduled and chartered services. There are almost 1 million registered buses in the US, that make nearly 600 million passenger trips.
Primary areas of research for automated vehicles include best practices, vehicle and driver issues, cybersecurity, data sharing, and stakeholder communication. The introduction of automated vehicles will be incremental and Mr. Loftus expects there to be a mix of automated and nonautomated fleets for decades. With that being the case, the interactions between these two vehicle types on the road is a key area of concern. Cybersecurity is paramount to ensuring automated vehicles will not be weaponized and as a means of gaining acceptance from the American public.
Truck platooning utilizes level 1 automation—meaning that it automates one aspect of the driving function—in order to increase fuel efficiency. In the case of platooning, that automated function is spacing. The front and following trucks have instant radio communications sharing throttle and braking information that allow a rear truck to brake even before the front truck’s brake lights appear. This is currently being tested in several states. While no federal laws prohibit platooning, some state laws regarding following distance do.
Platooning has been found to increase fuel efficiency in the first vehicle by three to four percent and seven to ten percent in the following vehicle, for a combined ten to fifteen percent gain in efficiency. Trucks generally get six miles to the gallon and travel 100,000-120,000 miles a year, so the possible cost savings is significant.
The military, and specifically the US Army and its Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Ground Vehicle Systems Center, as well as the US Department of Energy, are all involved and interested in these technologies.
The CCDC Ground Vehicle Systems Center is moving toward an automated ground resupply system and an Expedient Leader-Follower system. The military is not as interested in the fuel efficiency, as in the potential the automated vehicles and platooning holds in terms of staffing and workforce. They want a human in a lead truck with fully automated following trucks to free up personnel.
The center recently underwent a two-week soldier evaluation and VIP demo at Fort Bliss in Texas. They will be doing safety testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and are scheduled to do some training at Fort Polk in Louisiana in November and Fort Sill in Oklahoma in January. Training deployment at both bases consists of 30 vehicles each in April, but the ultimate goal is to have unmanned operations in July 2020.
“We are really several years away from fully operational, deployed self-driving trucks on public roads and, when it does come, it will be in niche deployments on lonely highways,” said Mr. Loftus. “We already have automated trucks deployments overseas—they are in the mines in Australia, as well as the mines in Sweden, very constrained environments. But it’s going to come as a trickle in the next few years or so. Truck platooning is really here. The fleets are still trying to make sure it makes sense to them, but at this point we don’t know if it is going to be a viable technology.”