The race to launch driverless trucks

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The US and Europe are competing to be the first to unleash autonomous trucks on the highways.

There is a huge incentive because driverless trucks are significantly cheaper to operate, can be substantially safer, and can help truckers complete their routes sooner.

Despite steep competition, announcements as early as this month put the US in the lead. Fewer regulations, wide open spaces, and homegrown innovation for all the necessary building gives the US a clear advantage.


Autonomous trucks roll across the US

There have been announcements in Europe regarding connected trucks and autonomous truck prototypes, but to date there have been no commercial applications.

 In December, Scania supplied its 100,000th truck with activated connectivity, which enables their offices to perform remote diagnostics and to coach drivers to drive safer with more fuel efficiency.

Last May, Daimler revealed the world’s first officially recognized self-driving truck, which should be in commercial use within a decade.

In contrast, the US driverless trucks have already hit the highway and are making deliveries.

For the last six months, autonomous trucks built by Embark have been hauling Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California.

An Uber self-driving truck completed a 120-mile drive in Colorado to deliver 50,000 cans of beer.

Waymo announced that this month it will start testing its self-driving trucks to deliver cargo to its sister company Google's data centers in Atlanta, Georgia.

One reason why the US has a head start is that the wide-open highways over large areas are more convenient for testing prototypes.

Setting up live testing situations is difficult in Europe because it requires a range of temporary exemptions from various governments.

Volvo did its demo in a mine in part to avoid all the bureaucracy. The German multi-national automotive manufacturer Daimler will be testing its autonomous trucks in the state of Nevada in the US.

The first autonomous Volvo truck drive was tested in the US through a partnership with Otto, the US-based, self-driving truck start-up.


Bigger profits, fewer rules

There is also the overwhelming fact of trying to achieve a positive return on investment.

The cost to equip each driverless truck could be as high as $25,000 and there needs to be huge cost savings in fuel, labor, and maintenance to justify the investment.

Huge trucking companies and logistics suppliers across the US, such as Federal Express and UPS, have strong incentives to invest in technologies because of the tremendous opportunities for cost savings.

When it comes to regulatory headaches there are fewer in the US. In the US, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has already set guidelines and is in the process of making rules for the country’s highways.

Otto believes that the US government will mandate this technology eventually, and will require truck manufacturers to integrate it into their vehicles.

The European Union has different rules and regulations in each country, and in addition there can be several countries on a truck’s route that are not part of the EU.

There is also the challenge of security when trucks cross legal jurisdictions and criminals want to get their hands on the cargo or use the trucks to transport contraband across borders.

Europe’s narrow, crooked crowded roads can be difficult to handle for even passenger cars.

Imagine the challenges for trucks that don’t have the option of non-verbal communication including flashing, honking, and hand signaling.

US based start-ups can also provide the artificial intelligence, neural networks, and supercomputers providing the processing power so trucks can drive themselves.

Certain technologies need to be put into place so they can “talk” to each other, which is particularly important given most trucking companies have several different makes and models of trucks.

In addition, communication is critical where connected trucks have evolved to become “platoons”, where trucks at the back of the formation are able to automatically and closely follow a lead vehicle.

The same goes for encryption to protect the data from tampering.

In an attempt to meet all the data management demands, fleet managers have started to adopt more advanced and all-inclusive integration platforms that enable the sharing of information between drivers, vehicles and the whole logistical network.

Middleware can also empower fleet management by enabling data to be handled in a secure way and by providing elastic scalability to manage large volumes of data.

The autonomous trucking market presents a huge opportunity. The entity that leads the innovation could be determined by something as simple as wide open spaces and simple regulatory procedures, but the consensus is that autonomous trucks will hit the highways on both sides of the Atlantic, although it may appear in some places sooner than others.

By Stephan Romeder, vice president, global business development, Magic Software Europe

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