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Jon Morrison, President of WABCO Americas.

Autonomous operations for heavy-duty trucks are coming down the road

Although some commercial vehicle fleets and owners remain skeptical about autonomous driving and the implications for their big rigs traveling down the highway, the fact is that much of the technology is already available to make it a real possibility. Some estimates say the technology could be ready for commercial application by the 2025 time period, or perhaps sooner.

Indeed, some off-road industrial autonomous vehicles already are at work, and actually have been since the 1990s, specifically in the mining and agricultural markets. Autonomous and semi-autonomous agricultural vehicles, for example, are fairly common these days out in the field where harvesters are electronically tethered to carriers for faster and easier loading. GPS technology also is used extensively in agricultural markets to identify and validate locations for seeding, pesticide control, and more.

For on-highway applications, much of the necessary technology already is being implemented to make vehicles safer, and to reduce costs associated with collisions. The technologies include cameras, sensors and computers that power autonomous braking to help avoid collisions with other vehicles; electronic stability control systems to mitigate rollovers and jackknifing; blind spot detection; systems that warn when a vehicle strays from its lane; and tire pressure monitoring devices designed to eliminate crippling blowouts and prevent accidents.

Federal and state regulations, of course, also will play a key role as autonomous vehicle development moves forward. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for example, proposed that all new heavy-duty trucks come equipped with stability control starting in August 2017. NHTSA cites a study showing that Class 7 and 8 trucks account for more than 300 deaths and 2700 injuries annually due to loss-of-control accidents.

Meanwhile, in January the Obama Administration proposed a $4-billion, 10-year program to develop autonomous vehicles with a goal of reducing human errors, saving lives, and superseding a mishmash of state and local regulations.

Several states, however, already are gearing up for real-time highway testing of autonomous vehicles. One Michigan project includes a road-test triangle consisting of Interstate highways I-69, I-94 and I-696.

Another initiative focuses on Mcity, a 32-acre test facility operated by the University of Michigan Transformation Center on U-M’s North Campus. Opened last summer, Mcity is designed to test—under controlled situations—connected and autonomous vehicles, and features widely varying road conditions, roundabouts, tunnels, signals, lighting and much more.

Some off-highway manufacturers are collaborating with customers and suppliers to test and validate the accuracy, speed and efficiency of their vehicles.

Platooning now feasible

While workable, fully autonomous vehicles remain in development. One function—platooning—is now feasible, say some experts. In this case the enticement is fuel savings of up to 10% produced by aerodynamic “drafting,” with safety also a prime factor.

In platooning, each truck is equipped with advanced cruise control. The front truck controls the brakes and acceleration for the entire convoy, and the cruise control keeps those following at a precise distance from each other. This is another technology in which WABCO is able to actively participate.

Clearly the prospect of vastly reducing highway deaths and injuries lies behind the current push to automate commercial vehicle operation. Although declining in recent years, accidents still claim 33,000 lives annually in the U.S.

In theory, safer vehicles with fewer deaths and injuries should logically reduce insurance costs. That’s something industrial and commercial vehicle fleets and operators are considering in evaluating the overall cost of adding safety-related technology.

Paying at the checkout for a “basket” full of technology is another obvious concern of industrial and commercial fleets and owner-operators. However, these costs can be offset by accident-reducing savings and by economies of scale as volume climbs.

As the discussion on automated vehicles has accelerated in North America, WABCO’s suite of technologies, including air disc brakes, collision mitigation and stability control systems, are all platforms for autonomous driving. Furthering its leadership in braking, WABCO earlier this year acquired MICO Inc., a global market leader in hydraulic components, controls and brake systems for off-highway vehicles in agriculture, construction, mining and similar industries. This was done to gain greater access to the off-highway market in North America, as well as continue expanding our technology developments in these growth markets, especially as they relate to braking, a key component in autonomous driving.

WABCO has a vision for vehicle safety that takes into account the present and the future:

• Today: collision mitigation/avoidance; driver performance monitoring and coaching

• 2020: accident prevention

• 2025: autonomous driving; safety 360°.

Collision mitigation fully developed

Collision mitigation systems (CMS) are now gaining popularity in light vehicles and have been fully developed for heavy-duty vehicles. The key is radar sensors capable of slowing and/or totally stopping a vehicle that “sees” moving, stopping or stationary vehicles ahead and automatically brakes should the driver fail to take appropriate action.

At WABCO, we call the most advanced version of our CMS OnGuardACTIVE. It recognizes conditions 30% faster than a typical driver and is impervious to low visibility driving conditions such as whiteouts, heavy rain, dense fog, blinding sunshine and the dark of night—conditions where camera-based systems may be impaired. Moreover, it alerts drivers with acoustic, visual and haptic (sense of touch) warnings.

Our research shows that OnGuard in more than 200 fleets has provided up to an 87% reduction in rear-end collisions collectively over 45 billion miles and an 89% reduction in accident costs. Furthermore, we calculate the ROI for OnGuard is two years or less.

Like other commercial vehicle suppliers, we have developed stability control and lane-departure technology as well, both compatible with the looming era of autonomous operation. We also invested $20 million in Smart Drive Systems, a California-based driving performance management solutions innovator that uses video analysis, predictive analytics and a personalized performance program to help fleets and carriers improve skills, lower operating costs and deliver significant ROI.

Naturally, the overall outlook for industrial and commercial vehicles will determine the potential market for our portfolio of technologies. With issues of cost, safety and liability continuing to be key drivers for their acceptance and adoption, how many of those may be autonomous vehicles is yet to be determined.

Jon Morrison, President of WABCO Americas, wrote this article for Off-Highway Engineering as part of the annual Executive Viewpoints series appearing in the June 2016 issue.

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