Skip to main content

The road to automated driving systems in commercial vehicles

Technologies such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist are improving the business case.

The automated vehicle (AV), representing the pinnacle of automotive innovation, has generated a lot of interest and investment. By some estimates, over $80 billion has been invested in AVs since 2014. Media coverage tends to focus on the promised benefits of passenger travel, while ignoring the more pertinent developments in commercial vehicle applications.

How it began

The quest to incorporate automation technologies in commercial vehicles is not new. Early developments funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and carried out by Lockheed Martin in 1985 yielded the Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV), which demonstrated an off-road trip of just over half a mile at 3 miles per hour. AVs have come a long way since then. Over the past several years, automotive manufacturers and startups alike have begun to transition the deployment of AVs from the sandbox to the road. Companies including Daimler and Volvo have been actively pursuing the development of platooning, carrying out their own tests in addition to participating in the multi-brand truck platoon initiative, ENSEMBLE

Companies also have continued to build upon the successes of the ALV by looking to less traditional and off-road scenarios for the early deployment of advanced driving systems (ADS). For example, Volvo has tested vehicle automation in underground mines, sugarcane fields and in refuse trucks. Mercedes-Benz has deployed ADS to synchronize AVs for snow removal. Building out ADS in off-road and closed environments enables companies to demonstrate the efficiency gains and reduced ownership costs of AVs, while simultaneously building confidence in the abilities of the technology.

What is happening now?

Today, we are seeing low levels of partial vehicle automation in the form of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) quickly becoming available throughout the commercial vehicle market. ADAS such as adaptive cruise control (ACC), automatic emergency braking (AEB) and lane keeping assist (LKA) are improving the business case for commercial vehicles.

ACC maintains a consistent time gap with the vehicle ahead and prevents unnecessary accelerations to improve fuel economy. LKA can correct for inadvertent lane departures, while AEB can reduce the occurrence and severity of collisions. Platooning is expected to begin commercial deployment soon; Peloton Technology, which is developing an aftermarket platooning as a service business, anticipates commercial launch for fleet owners within the next year.

Why will AV technology scale?

 AV technologies can improve commercial fleet driver safety and vehicle efficiency, and in so doing reduce overall costs. Consider the following benefits that are driving adoption:

  • Safety: A vehicle equipped with AEB can prevent or reduce the severity of a collision. This will save lives in addition to reducing repair and insurance costs. Safety improvements are the most interesting to governments; technologies that further this goal are most likely to be adopted quickly through regulation. In 2015, for example, the European Union required all new heavy goods trucks to be equipped with AEB and lane departure warning.  
  • Efficiency: Early efficiency gains from AVs likely will come from platooning, which will initially target commercial trucks. Platooning technology will enable trucks to closely follow one another, minimizing drag and improving fuel efficiency. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study demonstrated that platooning could create fuel savings in Class 8 trucks by 5.3 percent for the lead truck, while the trailing truck saved up to 9.7 percent. AV technology also may progress from reacting to the road environment to optimizing acceleration and braking, which would yield additional fuel economy improvements.
  • Cost: The American Trucking Association estimates the current driver shortage at 51,000. This shortage of truck drivers is anticipated to grow, further increasing the cost of labor. This has left industry stakeholders looking for solutions. ADAS can ease some daily burdens truck drivers face, improving retention rates of current drivers and making the profession more attractive for a new population of drivers to enter the market. However, it’s also important to consider that ADS will put downward pressure on the price of labor as the technology becomes more sophisticated and capable of handling the driving task. Once deployed, AVs could remove some or all need for drivers.

Confronting the challenges

AVs must overcome several challenges to reach commercialization. Mainly these focus on human-machine interaction.

  • First, there are already instances of over-reliance on systems that are not yet sophisticated enough to monitor and react to the entirety of a dynamic road environment. A false sense of security combined with a lack of understanding to the limits of these technologies could lead users to disregard their responsibilities. Most ADS developers are thus choosing to skip Level 3 autonomy (which would still require a mix of human intervention) to move to Levels 4 and 5, where human intervention no longer would be required in the event the system encounters a challenge. Skipping over Level 3 means more time required to develop and commercialize Levels 4 and 5.
  • Next, the public is quick to judge when AVs fail. For better or worse, hype has contributed to a perception that AVs should execute all aspects of the driving task perfectly. Even in the context of early development and pilot programs, errors can prove a difficult hurdle to overcome. An accident involving an AV damages public confidence. This is shown by a survey done by AAA that followed an Uber self-driving vehicle incident that resulted in the death of a woman. Consider how bad public perception would be if an accident involved a 26-ton semi-truck on a highway.
  • Additionally, even in light of the first death from an AV, reception to the defensive and cautious driving style of some AVs has been poor. Although the developers of AVs cite safety as their top priority, some drivers who share the driving environment with early AVs have been frustrated with the way erring on the side of caution is manifesting on roads.
  • Finally, even in a market that needs more drivers, many see AVs as harmful to labor with AVs positioned to take away jobs.

Adoption moving forward

Even though AV developments in the commercial market have been overshadowed by the passenger vehicle market, there is significant interest and investment: the promise of increased safety, efficiency and reduced ownership cost is easy to identify. Truck platooning is anticipated to be one of the next technologies to commercialize in this space.

Stakeholders must prove reliability; this will be crucial to advancing AVs to more complex environments. This can be accomplished gradually, starting from real world deployments in off-road applications and fixed regional routes. As lower risk applications successfully are established, vehicles with higher levels of automation will be well positioned for more widespread adoption.

More on this topic