How far will autonomous trucks go on regular runs? Only over the highway, with human drivers needed to take over if the auto-driving systems run into problems, as recent demonstrations have suggested? Will drivers take charge and pilot rigs into towns and cities, and to and from terminals?
Or will drivers be optional, with sophisticated hardware and software able to safely cope with traffic and turns, handling the entire run?
Developers at Eaton Corporation’s Intelligent Vehicle Group think trucks could be auto-guided right to their pick-up and delivery points. Part of that is backing up to a loading dock, and they’ve got a demo tractor that can do it.
The feature is on a rig that’s at the Eaton Proving Grounds outside of Marshall, Michigan. Conor Dodd, lead technician on the project, showed it to me a few weeks ago. He called it Auto Dock, though its official name is Dock Assist. It uses GPS locating with sensors on the tractor and a transmitter on the dock that tell on-board controls where to drive the truck.
The engine, automated transmission and electric-over-hydraulic steering gear get instructions and maneuver the rig accordingly, and electronically controlled brakes (if the tractor has them) stop the rig as needed.
For the short demo, I hopped in the passenger seat and Dodd drove over to a large paved pad where a concrete barrier beam simulated a loading dock. He stopped the rig parallel to the beam, about 50 yards away. He hit a switch on the dash that activated the system and took his hands off the steering wheel.
The tractor needed to back “blind” toward the dock, pushing the trailer to its right. It remained motionless while Dock Assist’s controls read GPS signals and those from the dock’s transmitter, and considered the situation. Then the transmission shifted into reverse and, with the engine barely above idle speed, the tractor began backing very slowly.
The steering wheel spun left and right quickly, making many adjustments as it turned the trailer 90 degrees and continued creeping toward the dock. It made far more corrections and the rig moved far more slowly than an experienced driver would do.
After several minutes the trailer’s rear gently touched the dock’s rubber bumper – a couple of old tires – and stopped. Dodd explained that sensors in the UltraShift Plus automated manual transmission saw increased torque as the trailer touched the dock, and immediately told the engine to quit pushing. The transmission went to neutral and Dodd popped the yellow parking brake valve (the system would’ve applied the parking brake if the tractor had electronically controlled brakes).
My take: Docking was precise and gentle, but it took much more time than an operator would be happy with. And this situation was on level ground with plenty of space; what if the ground were sloping and uneven, and lots of trucks were around? As development continues, the system will get faster and more capable, Dodd said.
Dock Assist would help an inexperienced driver get a trailer to a dock, but should anyone be driving a rig if he or she can’t back it? Learning how takes only a few days of intense practice – maybe a week for someone who’s a complete novice -- if a fleet wants to spend the time and money on training. A responsible company would!
More compelling from a management standpoint is damage caused during backing, said Gerard Devito, Eaton Vehicle Group’s chief technology officer, in a statement.
“In conversations we have had with a large fleet customer, they estimate an expenditure of $10,000 a month for repairs from damages that occur during the coupling of a tractor or trailer in the loading dock environment,” he said. Damages include banging into obstructions and other trucks, and wear and tear on driveline components, primarily clutches.
“That is money they would not have to spend using Eaton’s ADAS Dock Assist system,” Devito declared. (ADAS means Advanced Driver Assist System, of which Dock Assist is a part.)
At present, Dock Assist requires someone to be in the driver’s seat. Later versions might make him/her unnecessary. Still, the trailer's doors must be opened, and it must be unloaded and reloaded, which drivers are involved with in many operations. In hook-and-drop ops, somebody would have to disconnect the air and electrical lines, lower and raise the trailer’s landing gear, uncouple the tractor, then hitch up to another. That someone could ride in with the rig, or be on duty at a terminal or customer’s location.
There are all kinds of details that will have to be worked out for autonomous trucks to go into everyday service. That will make the implementation almost as interesting as the technology.