IAA Commercial Vehicles 2016: Autonomous trucks in the starting blocks
As if by magic, the truck maneuvers in the yard; reversing quickly and stopping at the loading ramp with millimeter precision. This demonstration can be seen live at the IAA Commercial Vehicles. And it’s not just a simulation – the system is fully operational.
In fact, in an interview with 2025AD, Prof. Karlheinz Schmidt, managing director of the German freight transport association BGL, urged OEMs to implement such innovations into series vehicles sooner rather than later. In the video below he points out that many road deaths could be avoided this way. But at IAA 2016, Schmidt complained that only one truck manufacturer (Daimler) is showcasing a new assistant for turning.
Connected commercial vehicles offer more efficiency
Another clear objective for commercial vehicles is to reduce fuel consumption and subsequently, CO2 emissions. Some clever solutions are already available on the market – take efficiency assistants for example. These systems possess precise data concerning the given route: things like gradients, curve radiuses and the course of the road. They then use this data to control automatic transmissions and engine electronics. Currently, through the use of such systems, fuel savings of around three percent can be achieved. The savings improve once connectivity is added, providing further data on traffic volume and obstruction.
Many of these technologies are of course installed in innovative trucks presented at the IAA. But the concepts and innovations of the manufacturers go far beyond that.
One of the megatopics at this year’s trade fair is platooning – driving in automated convoys. All big suppliers like Bosch, Continental and ZF as well as OEMs like Mercedes-Benz, MAN, Scania or Volvo offer systems that are - for the most part – ready to go.
In what is known as a platoon, several trucks follow a lead vehicle at a maximum distance of 7 to 15 meters. The result is reduced air drag which, in turn, reduces mileage - especially for the following vehicles. But by avoiding stall, the leading truck also benefits – albeit to a lesser degree. The prerequisite is that all vehicles maintain the set distance via sensor systems while also constantly exchanging information through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Matthias Wissman, president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), emphasized the benefits of platooning during the IAA opening ceremony, stating: “With highway platooning, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be reduced by ten percent.”
Dr. Gerhard Schulz, a high-ranking official at the German Federal Ministry of Transport, took to the stage at the “Vocational training in the transport and logistics sector” symposium. He was visibly impressed by the technology he had witnessed in person just a couple of weeks ago: “It is impressive when vehicles converge and form a chain. But of course these solutions raise questions as well.” Such questions range from the implications for other road users to the issue of financing (and feasible business models).
The latter topic has already been on the industry’s discussion table for some time. Since the following trucks save fuel and therefore money, one promising idea is to charge them with a fee (per mile, per minute or per liter of fuel saved). The operator of the service platform would then share the profit with the owner of the leading truck. “For the carrier, it is critical that the whole thing pays off,” says Eckehart Rotter, VDA chief press officer. “Digitalization comes with enormous added value for companies.”
Before the IAA, we asked 2025ad users what they thought were the most interesting topics when it came to commercial vehicles and the IAA. They frequently raised the issue of infrastructure preconditions and communication standards. Within the industry, there is a broad agreement that trucks participating in a platoon should not communicate over a mobile network but rather via a direct connection – for instance the automotive W-Lan standard 802.11p.
Even if the technology is largely ready to use, the legal framework must be created before the platooning can be introduced. In Europe, this responsibility lies with the individual member states. In Germany, for instance, a minimum distance of 50 meters between two trucks is mandatory. To date, it is simply illegal to reduce the distance any further with the help of computers. In the video below, Jörg Lützner, innovation expert at Continental, further explains the concept, technology and benefits of platooning.
What will the drivers be doing during platooning?
Currently it’s still undecided what the drivers of the following trucks will be doing during the automated convoy ride. Some demonstrations at the trade fair show how the truckers could take over planning tasks during that time. Tasks which, in the present day, are performed by central dispatchers. It remains questionable whether drivers can in fact assume those duties while on the move in a convoy. It could be that the regulations regarding driving and rest periods are altered in the future. For example, one might distinguish “active” driving periods from “passive” driving periods. When it comes to who actually define these, it would most likely be up to lawmakers.
Gerhard Grünig, chief editor of the trade journals “Verkehrsrundschau” and “Trucker”, imagines the future a little differently: “I expect that truck drivers will leave the truck before it becomes part of the platoon and board again when the convoy disperses.” However, this would obviously require that the automated convoy stops at a rest area. It also implies that the individual trucks would have to drive fully autonomously to the next available resting place after the platoon breaks up.
Then again, Grünig stresses that the transport industry has a high demand for digitalization and connectivity, as well as self-driving trucks. A major driving force for this demand is the looming shortage of professional truck drivers. Currently, the German transport sector loses 30,000 to 35,000 drivers to retirement each year yet only 18,000 people sign up to start their professional career. This results in a shortage of approximately 15,000 drivers every year. And that doesn’t even include the relatively high dropout rate in the training stage.
However, changes in the industry also offer new opportunities for career starters. As Dorothee Bär, Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Transport, had noted before IAA: “The truck driver of today has to be very open-minded – and also offer a lot of flexibility. He or she should not be afraid of innovation. It’s not like you learn a trade once and then keep doing it for the next 40 or 50 years. Instead, we see technological advancements every year or even every month.”