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A fleet of self-driving trucks rumbles across Europe

Lucas Mearian | April 8, 2016
Platooning in the U.S. still four to five years out.

Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors N.V. and DAF Trucks joined forces under the umbrella of the EcoTwin consortium to create the autonomous trucking technology.

The technology consists of a sophisticated vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications system call RoadLINK, which was developed by NXP. RoadLINK uses the wireless communications standard IEEE 802.11p combined with NXP radar technology enabling trucks in a platoon to securely exchange information in real time and automatically brake and accelerate in response to the lead truck.

The high speed of communication and responsiveness of the autonomous system allowed extremely tight distances and synchronous driving between the platooning DAF Trucks, the group said. 

In the U.S., the first autonomous semi-trailer hit the road in Nevada for its first pilot test almost a year ago today. Daimler unveiled its 18-wheeler during a ceremony at the Hoover Dam.

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck, a concept truck, underwent extensive testing, Daimler said, before the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles granted it a license to operate on public roads in the state. This past year, the truck was driven more than 10,000 miles during a test in Germany.

"I think realistically, we're four to five years out before we could see platooning on [U.S.] highways," said Darren Gosbee, director of engineering at Navistar International Corp., the oldest truck maker in the U.S. "The thing about platooning is it's like having a cell phone, it's only when everyone else has one that other trucks can enter and exit the platoon."

While the autonomous semi-trailers are important pilots for the new technology, there's still a long way to go before fleets of trucks will be platooning across the U.S., Europe or other parts of the world, according to Gosbee.

"As we look toward autonomous vehicles, obviously the technology has to step up. This is where we talk about redundancy and mitigation of failure," Gosbee said. "Every vehicle on a highway has some form of electronic controls, whether that's an electronic throttle or an electronic fuel control. Those have fail safes and when they do fail, they must be able to go into some fail safe condition."

A "fail safe" condition would be cutting vehicle acceleration and bringing it to a controlled stop alongside the roadway, Gosbee said.

Navistar International is exploring autonomous trucking, testing platooning as well as more common technology such as active cruise control, automatic breaking and lane keeping.

"That's something we're very active in at the moment," Gosbee said.

Another issue is that for every truck, there are six to eight trailers that don't support autonomous hookups, Gosbee said. So an aging fleet of trailers would also have to be modernized over time.


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