The digital future of the truck

The mobility of the future is really quite a simple affair: the driver presses two blue switches. A symbol in the cockpit of the Mercedes-Benz Actros illuminates to indicate that the 40-tonne truck on the A61 motorway has now joined a platoon. The platoon is made up of three digitally connected trucks. Thanks to the Highway Pilot Connect developed by Daimler, the truck driver could now theoretically switch to the role of a logistician and turn his attention to other things – at least in this scenario of the future. Meanwhile, the job of driving is taken over by cameras and a network of sensors that register all external factors and translate them into the appropriate reactions.

Daimler showed that such a scenario is already close to reality in a test drive of three connected Actros trucks on the A52 motorway to Campus Connectivity in Düsseldorf. On an even larger scale, the “European Truck Platooning Challenge” has now demonstrated the viability of connected driving. This trip across Europe as far as Rotterdam involved the participation of a total of six manufacturers with their connected trucks. The initiative for this experiment came from the Dutch government as part of that country’s presidency of the EU Council.

Technology makes it possible: Lightning-fast reactions

Highway Pilot Connect shows what opportunities and concrete benefits can result from connecting the vehicles not only with each other but also to the infrastructure. The trucks are connected by an on-board telematics platform that uses a special automotive Wi-Fi standard to communicate with the other vehicles and the infrastructure. The system processes the information from the video-link and stereo cameras as well as from the connectivity control unit. There are also short- and long-range radar modules as well as the control unit for multi-sensor data fusion. Thus equipped, the connected trucks can safely negotiate the traffic on the motorway while following the “leader of the pack”. If need be, they are capable of reacting to dangerous situations by initiating emergency braking within 0.1 seconds.

It takes the average driver up to 1.4 seconds to react. “This means that, at a speed of 80 km/h, the truck covers more than 30 extra metres before the driver steps on the brakes. With electronic emergency braking, the distance is just 2.2 metres,” explains Martin Zeilinger, Head of Advance Development at Daimler Trucks. During the motorway journey, Zeilinger attentively follows how “his Actros” performs within the platoon. He also remains unfazed whenever a daredevil motorist cuts in front of the 40-tonner. The truck reacts instantly to maintain a safe distance, immediately closing rank again once the intruder has returned to the overtaking lane. Unlike the driver, the truck is unaffected by a surge of adrenaline or a sudden spike in blood pressure.

Legal approval still required

To enable the driver to know at all times what is happening at the head of the platoon, the camera in the lead truck transmits the picture of the road ahead to a small screen next to the steering wheel. Otherwise the driver’s view is confined to the rear end of the trailer, just 15 metres in front of him. Such a small distance is made possible by platooning and the speedy reactions of the electronics. “Unfortunately, the law has not kept pace with our technology,” admits Zeilinger, referring to the legal hurdles. “Once legal approval has been given, we can have our technology production ready in three to four years.”

As Zeilinger explains the technology and the prospects for the future, the Actros, the third member of the platoon, makes its way along the busy motorway towards the Rhineland. The truck’s reactions to the driving manoeuvres of the other platoon members in front of it are surprisingly smooth. “Our Highway Pilot Connect is designed exclusively for use on motorways with clear markings,” explains Zeilinger. And, in some situations, manual intervention is required. “We consciously decided not to include automated lane changing,” says Zeilinger by way of example.

From trucker to logistician

In this future scenario of digitally connected logistics, the driver would now have time to make contact with the dispatcher at the office of the haulage company and let them know the estimated time of arrival, or he could turn his attention to new freight if the trailer is not full to capacity. This means that, despite the fears of some truckers when they see such a platoon, the driver would not become superfluous. Instead, the job profile would change and even become more skilled.

Laymen might be distracted by such logistics tasks and lose their focus on what is happening on the road ahead. Zeilinger plays down such fears, however: “During platooning test drives, we have measured the brain activity of drivers while they carry out secondary activities and we have established that their alertness does not suffer and, in fact, increases by 25 percent.”

Significantly more efficient: Greater road safety along with fuel savings

Platooning allows the existing infrastructure to be used considerably more effectively than at present. This offers significant advantages in view of the fact that freight transport is set to triple in volume over the coming three decades, without commensurate expansion of the road network. The small gaps between the trucks mean that the existing roads can be used considerably more efficiently. Three tractor/semitrailer combinations together take up just 80 metres of road in a platoon, whereas their conventional counterparts need 150 metres. There is also an improvement in road safety, because the platoon’s cameras and sensors detect hazards significantly sooner than a human and react accordingly.

The first haulage companies “are already curious and showing interest in real-world trials,” reports Zeilinger. Word has obviously got about that platooning pays off, especially at the fuel pump. The considerably lower drag reduces the fuel consumption by around seven percent on average. This means that a fully laden 40-tonner can cover up to 100 kilometres on 25 litres on the flat. Ultimately, this also makes economic sense for the customer.