Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor

Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor

Amidst all the recent chatter about autonomous trucks and platooning, the story that might well be the most significant in this realm got a little lost in the shuffle.

Centered in the most unlikely of places, North Dakota, it’s a vision of how such technology can actually be put in place and bring economic benefit to a region.

It’s about a corridor as much as a region, as defined by CNATCA, the Central North American Trade Corridor Association.

It envisions the use of autonomous trucks traveling up and down Route 83 through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, along with Manitoba to the north and Mexico to the south.

But they’re not talking ‘autonomous’ as in Freightliner’s Inspiration truck (see last month’s column). Almost all press reports have assumed that sort of vehicle, usually calling it driverless, which it’s not. In fact it sports so-called Level 3 autonomy where the driver remains in control but can give the wheel to the electronic wizardry when conditions permit.

But it’s unmanned trucks the CNATCA folks are talking about, namely Level 4 autonomy. Got that? Unmanned.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines Level 3 as enabling the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain conditions. Level 0 means no automation at all, while Level 1 covers things like ABS. Level 2 combines automated capabilities as in adaptive cruise control.

Level 4 is complete automation, with or without a driver present. Freightliner has said firmly that it has no wish to go there, but who knows what’s possible if the market is pulling instead of being pushed as usual.

The CNATCA vision has these trucks programmed at launch to drive to destination X and deliver the freight, or pick it up, with no human intervention.

Volvo’s chief designer Jeff Cotner raised a useful question along these lines at a recent press event.

It's unmanned trucks these folks are talking about, namely Level 4 autonomy. Got that? Unmanned. 

“Why does the tractor have to pull everything?” he asked.

He sees trailers operating under their own power with no physical connection to a tractor, but free to join and follow in platoon formation with other similarly smart vehicles and then break off and drive themselves to different destinations along the way.

CNATCA spokesman Marlo Anderson sees the same thing.

Quoted a year ago by Jessica Holdman writing in The Bismarck Tribune in Bismarck, N.D., he said a self-moving flatbed trailer could be used to ship freight along the corridor.

“The technology is ahead of the regulations,” Anderson said.