After the media reported the ride sharing company Uber would be dropping it’s driverless truck program, the general public probably believe they will hear no more about autonomous trucks. They may be right, they may be wrong. Autonomous trucks might not appear in the general media, but they will be big in the plans of the truck makers and the trucking industry.
With a big player like Uber dropping the program, it may appear the idea is a non-starter. Very far from it, the idea of autonomous trucks is not only a goer, it’s happening now on our roads, to a certain extent.
The problem is the public perception is they will be out on the road one day and all of the vehicles are controlled by the driver, and then the next morning they wake up and everything on the road will be autonomous.
This is as far from the truth as it’s possible to be. The introduction of autonomous trucks, and autonomy in general is a gradual drip by drip process, and it has been going on in front of our eyes for some time.
It’s all about small steps at a time. First we had automatic gear boxes. The gearbox itself decided when to change up and down gears. This began as a very clunky system but now state of the art autos and AMTs are about as smart as it is possible to be, as a stand alone system.
Then we come to cruise control, simply maintaining a set speed along a road. The original rudimentary cruises were exactly that. Auto boxes helped to make them better. Over time they have become smarter and smarter and will be one of the base systems for the eventual autonomous truck. It is possible to slip a truck into cruise control and drive it purely by switching cruise on and off at the right time.
Then a couple of systems started appearing in trucks back in the early noughties. One was lane keeping control and the other was proximity control. Lane keeping simply uses video (with radar now added) to watch the road ahead and will warn the driver when the truck is drifting out of its lane. These have become more and more sophisticated and the latest iteration will kick the steering back into the middle of the lane, if needed.
Proximity control uses a radar on the front of the truck to work out how far any vehicle is ahead of the truck and compare speeds. If the truck is approaching the vehicle fast, it warns the driver. If the car is accelerating away it does nothing. The most important data is about how far anything is out front.
Then we started to merge these technologies. Put cruise and the proximity radar together and you can then use the speed control to keep the truck at a set distance behind the vehicle in front. This takes the strain off the driver to keep an eye on everything and allows them to concentrate on other things.
Next we introduce an emergency braking system. If the radar realises the vehicle in front is getting dangerously close it can activate the brakes. Initially, this was done with a short application to warn the driver, but now, with the latest EBS braking and stability control, it can bring the truck to a halt.
The next layer we have added is the road mapping. Now a truck knows where it is and how fast and in which direction is traveling. This helps in getting from Ato B, but really comes into its own when linked to the cruise control systems. Now, it can power into the foot of a grade and coast over the top of a crest. It could activate the engine brake at the top of a descent.
There you have it. The truck knows where it is and where it is going. It adjusts speed and braking depending on the route it is taking and other vehicles in front of it on the road. The steering can keep the truck within its lane. This is pretty damn close to being autonomous.
The next few steps to a completely autonomous truck are quite tough ones, but the technology to achieve them already exists. Each one will arrive and slip quietly into the ever more sophisticated trucks we buy. The progress to autonomy is inevitable.
So, without Uber, and probably without Elon Musk, we will still wake up one morning and all of the vehicles on our roads will be driving themselves, and we won’t notice.