All That's Trucking

Coming to a highway near you: Driverless vehicles

September 4, 2013

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I'm old enough now that I'm increasingly seeing stuff from the science fiction books I devoured as a teenager become reality. No flying cars yet. Reading mail and newspapers electronically? Check. Video phones? Check. Driverless cars? Pretty close!

In fact, a couple of articles coming out of Europe lately indicate that commercial trucks, not Google cars, may be at the forefront of this concept.

In the Sartre project, three self-driving Volvo cars "platoon" behind a commercial truck.
In the Sartre project, three self-driving Volvo cars "platoon" behind a commercial truck.

In late May, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened the door for road-testing self-driving trucks by publishing policies for the three states that currently allow driverless vehicles: California, Nevada, and Florida. These guidelines open the door for driverless tests of all kinds. Overseas, meanwhile, experiments with driverless truck convoys—also known as “platoons”—have been under way for years.

CNET reports that "linking cars into a trainlike group can save fuel, fit more cars on the road, and potentially improve safety. A project in Europe shows it's not just a fantasy."

Volvo is involved in a European project called Sartre(Safe Road Trains for the Environment) has successfully tested a road train, led by a commercial truck driven by a professional driver, followed by a number of autonomously driven cars. It builds on safety systems built into the vehicles, such as cameras, radar and laser senros, to monitor not only the lead vehicle but also other vehicles in the vicinity. Wireless communication allows the cars in the platoon to mimic the lead vehicle, accelerating, braking and turning the same way as the leader.

CNET notes that "Sartre chose to use a bus or a truck as a special lead vehicle for a several of reasons. First, professional drivers are safer than ordinary ones. Second, using special vehicles simplifies payment for the privilege of being in a platoon. Third, large vehicles block the wind for better group aerodynamics. Last, cars can always brake better than trucks, so there's no risk of the lead vehicle stopping more abruptly than trailing cars can."

There's also a project in Japan that earlier this year tested a caravan of self-driving trucks. The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or NEDO, conducted a successful test in February. NEDO was established as a semi-governmental organization in 1980 to promote new energy technologies.

One truck driven by a human was followed by three self-driving trucks. The caravan successfully used technologies for steering, maintaing speed and staying in formation, with a 4-meter distance between each truck at 80 kilometers per hour. More tests are scheduled for later this year and the group hopes to have a practical version ready around 2020. Read more on reports on these projects and also notes that driverless convoys are already being used in war zones, where supply trucks are subject to attack. The article also notes that mining operations in Chile and western Australia are using driverless dump trucks to transport ore and other materials.

NEDO was established as a semi-governmental organization in 1980 to promote .

Read more at:

When it comes to highway use, the hope is that using convoys or platoons like this will help lower air resistance and reduce fuel consumption. But you also have to wonder what it could mean in the future as far as drivers.

Could it mean we'll need fewer drivers? I doubt you'd just send a convoy of four trucks with one driver across country. After all, who's going to handle actually getting the trucks off the road and into a parking spot or backing into a dock? But such a convoy could conceivably drive nearly 24 hours a day, with drivers taking turns handling the lead vehicle and spending time in the sleeper and just relaxing.

Read more on CNET

Related Story: What if Cars and Trucks Could Talk to Each Other?


  1. 1. Genghis Cahn [ September 05, 2013 @ 10:28AM ]

    Rest assured that the industry knows the only way to control out of this world cost increases in the future is "driverless" robotic vehicles. All of the tech is there, the only thing necessary now is to ween the public into the notion of absolute safety. The questions of "who is going to back them into the dock" and "who is going to fuel them" is child's play for robotics. There are several self parking auto's now. And the robot wont need a pull up to hit it square. Of course the robot fork that is pulling robotic wrapped and laser scanned and counted product wont need a lunch break or Obama Care premiums. The downside for those of us in the logistics arena is of course retirement. The biggest dilemma for business and progress is the current model of money and debt. Eliminating millions more jobs in the future means millions less HUMANS able to afford to purchase the goods and food being transported by the robots. "Prepare to assimilate, resistance is futile." ~

  2. 2. John Redding [ September 09, 2014 @ 10:52AM ]

    Although in ideal conditions I can see trucks being driven by computers. I wonder how they will handle a good ice storm or blizzard with white out conditions, or a heavy fog where you can't hardly see the road or one of many conditions that challenge the best of seasoned professional drivers. If the lead truck starts to have a wreck what happens to the train? I see a major wreck coming and 4 trucks full of hazmat causing a major event and killing many. Also consider if a inboard computer is hacked by terrorists, or crashes. Or someone takes control of the system to cause havoc. The truck better have a backup system, and a backup of the backup system. And it better be extremely secure. I see unforeseen circumstances coming.

  3. 3. John Redding [ September 09, 2014 @ 12:10PM ]

    One other thought, Wouldn't these trucks be easy prey to criminals looking to make a quick theft of goods. What about terrorist attacks with preprogrammed trucks full of gasoline heading into a metropolitan area at 80 mph. The world may regret allowing these trucks to freely operate on the highway.


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Author Bio

Deborah Lockridge

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All That's Trucking blog is just that – the editor's take on anything and everything related to trucking, with the help of guest posts from other HDT editors. Author Deborah Lockridge's career as an award-winning trucking journalist started in 1990.


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