07 April 2016, Amsterdam :
A squad of a dozen or so self-driving cargo trucks just completed a demonstration in Europe that covered over a thousand miles and crossed several borders, all with minimal human help.
The trucks were all part of the European Truck Platooning Challenge, an event sponsored by the Dutch government, and which is aimed at making fleets of smart, self-driving cargo trucks a practical business reality. “Platooning” is essentially just close, connected, fleet-based driving where follower trucks connect to the vehicle ahead of them with Wi-Fi and maintain a very tight driving formation that wouldn’t be safe for more fallible human drivers. A number of different companies participated, each using trucks and technology of its own. Scania, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, had the fleet that completed the most impressive journey of over 1,000 miles.
The advantages over human-based trucking are myriad. Aside from not relying on humans that need breaks for annoying things like food, sleep, and sanity, the formations that platooning enables can save a lot of money in fuel costs by cutting down on wind resistance. Research firm TNO estimates that trucks use 15 percent less fuel while they’re platooning.
There’s a push for similar tech in the United States as well. Last year, Freightliner announced its prototype “Inspiration Truck,” a self-driving prototype designed for hauling cargo. Around the same time, members of the Central North American Trade Corridor Association (CNATCA)began discussing the possibility of a robots-only highway that would run from Texas, up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and on into Manitoba.
It will probably still be a while before any of this takes hold as a common business practice; laws that vary between states in the U.S. and countries in Europe mean that collective legislative action has to happen before fleets like these have the potential to travel any considerable distance on a regular basis. But it’s looking more and more like the tech is there. Odds are everything else will follow sooner or later.
The goal of the event is to spread awareness about the utility of self-driving cars, and fleet vehicles in particular as Europe seeks to create a roadmap for the next several years of autonomous driving.
Image : AFP