Driving tomorrow, today

Driving tomorrow, today

Modern-day vehicles are far removed from their forebears. FOCUS unpacks the technology to see what is most likely to find its way under the skin of tomorrow’s trucks.

The technology that will underpin the trucks of tomorrow is already here. The unrelenting drive to reduce vehicle fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions, improve the safety of all road users, and increase the efficiency of the supply chain, is forcing engineers worldwide to think differently.

The answer – at least for now – does not seem to lie in what new form of vehicle powerplant we can invent, but, rather, how we can apply the abundance of technology we already have at our disposal.

Think WiFi is only for the home or office? Think again – your truck will soon be a WiFi hotspot, sharing ten messages a second with others up to 200 m around it.

Think only the driver’s eyes are watching the road? Nope – stereo cameras view the surroundings up to 100 m ahead of the vehicle, to detect lanes, clearances and traffic signs.

At the same time, short- and long-range radar sensors detect the speed of traffic ahead at 70 or 250 m respectively; allowing the truck to adapt to traffic flows and detect emergency situations.

There are at least 70 computer processors built into each connected truck, which allow all the components to work together. This is more than in the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the moon!

These are the components that will become commonplace in tomorrow’s vehicles. The viability of the technology was proved a couple of months ago in the European Truck Platooning Challenge. (You’ve already read much about this concept on the pages of FOCUS thus far this year.) Did the challenge achieve its goals?

Driving tomorrow, todayAccording to Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Schultz van Haegen (his ministry initiated the challenge), the results of the first-ever major platooning tryout are promising. “Truck platooning ensures that transport is cleaner and more efficient. Self-driving vehicles also improve traffic safety, because most traffic accidents are due to human error.

“As the test shows, the technology has already come a long way. It is also clear that we Europeans need to better harmonise rules of the road and rules for drivers. This will open the door for up-scaled, cross-border truck platooning.”

Indeed, the issue of legislation is just one of the factors delaying widespread availability of the technology.

“As this is not a scientific study, the results are in the form of hypotheses, conclusions and recommendations. These will yield building blocks for the future testing of the European harmonisation process. The blocks – assembled with our partners: the truck manufacturers, various governments, road authorities and research institutes – clearly show our starting point towards actual realisation of truck platooning in Europe,” says Loes Aarts, senior consultant Road Freight Transport, Rijkswaterstaat, Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.

Surely, the basic mechanicals are still relevant, though? Of course they are, although many claim that the diesel engine as we know it has reached its zenith (modern trucks are a third more fuel-efficient than those of 30 years ago), and any further mechanical gains in fuel efficiency and emissions reduction will come from the after-treatment processes and/or using “greener” fuels. For the time being, at least, the diesel engine seems to be staying put.

Following a 2015 rulemaking hearing, conducted by United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Diesel Technology Forum claimed that, by 2023, diesel engines will still power between 95 and 97 percent of all medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

“This is despite the introduction of alternative fuels and powertrains, including all-electric, and fuel-cell vehicles, as well as continued introduction of natural-gas powered vehicles,” says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

“Today, manufacturers of commercial trucks, engines and their components produce the cleanest, safest and most fuel-efficient technology in the world, and over 95 percent of those vehicles are powered by diesel engines,” he adds.

“Now achieving near zero emissions, clean diesel technology powers the overwhelming majority of medium and commercial trucks today, and, thanks to these improvements, is poised to continue as the prime powertrain technology for commercial vehicles in the future,” Schaeffer says.

“The engine may look and perform somewhat differently, and may be burning different kinds of low-carbon fuels, but, in the end, it will still be a diesel engine and an integral component in meeting the needs of a growing economy and a cleaner and more sustainable future.”

At a high level at least, it would seem to be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tomorrow’s trucks are already here today.

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