Self-driving cars are all the rage, but autonomous trucks are poised to majorly disrupt the way we deliver goods across the country. TechRepublic spoke to Charles Chilton, director of product development at Navistar, the parent company of truck manufacturer, International Truck, about where self-driving trucks are now, and what hurdles need to be overcome before we see them on the road.

What are the key differences when people are thinking about designing an autonomous trucks versus autonomous cars?

Size is the main difference. It’s a big deal. If you think about what’s going to happen with an automated vehicle, it still has to know what’s in its surroundings, what’s going on, and add sensors to the terminal. A big truck would need the exact same things.

The biggest difference that I would see between a car and an all-highway tractor, is the portion to connect the tractor to the trailer. I’d automate that. That helps the driver. Maybe the truck can actually connect itself before the driver comes in. Also, backing a tractor trailer into a dock can be automated as well, which would be different. Otherwise, the technology has a lot of similarities.

What’s the current state of your autonomous trucks? Do any have fully-autonomous capabilities?

No, not today. Full autonomous vehicles operating now down US highways is several years out. The technology is building up to that capability. Today, we’re definitely in the advanced side of it, the advanced world of seeing how it works. We’re doing a partnership with Mcity at the University of Michigan. They’ve brought together insurance companies, cell companies, government, academia, and vehicle companies.

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We’re the only on-highway tractor company that participates in that. Really, that’s going to be an incubator for an autonomous ecosystem, where a lot of us learn the interactions of our vehicles within the streets, with other cars, with other vehicles, with cell systems. You can imagine all of everything that has to be enabled for a fully autonomous truck. That’s where we are with our exploration and trying to make this autonomous vehicle a reality.

Can you talk about electronic steering?

You think to have an autonomous vehicle you’re going to have a steering wheel that will turn itself. You need to have electronic steering that can take input from some command to drive the vehicle. So, our platooning vehicle, we actually have installed a system that, it’s in the steering column, but it’s a hands off the steering wheel type of steering capability. Relative to future production, we have a little more work to do to get highway-ready in more of a mass market perspective. It is one of the last technologies that is not really on board trucks in a commercial way today. Definitely, it’s in our advanced stage and we’re learning more about it, and proving out the technology.

Where are trucks at with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication?

V2V, in platooning, is critical because they’re wirelessly communicating with each other in a close radio network so that the front truck is telling the back truck what to do from the speed, from the brake, from a turn. Those controls have to be very robust. That’s the vehicle to vehicle communications that’s there. That’s why, with our Mcity work, they’re working with the University of Michigan. That’s why the cell companies are involved because they’re trying to get into the door there. They’re trying to help out with communications, not only vehicle-to-vehicle but also vehicle-to-infrastructure.

Vehicle-to-infrastructure would be that they understand the stoplight patterns, and can predict how slow or how fast they need to go so that I don’t have to stop at the next stoplight. Or, they communicate with a weigh station so I don’t have to pull into a weigh station and stop, and waste the energy and time pulling into a weigh station.

Some of the more complicated maneuvering for autonomous vehicles happens in cities, in very dense areas. Do trucks have an advantage over cars, since many would be going from one big warehouse, to a highway, to another warehouse?

Good question. I think they do. Think about a truck that pulls into a dock out in Port of LA and the driver’s at the end of his shift, and he has fifteen minutes left of his time that he can drive for the day. In that port, if we had autonomous technology on the truck, the truck could take over itself inside the port and move to the dock as needed, and come back ready for the driver. I could see that happening before we got autonomous on highway.

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I can also see, potentially out West, and this is probably more platooning before we have autonomous, where there could be dedicated corridors where platooning trucks would run. That would have to be legislative regulated. Typically, you’re crossing multiple states. For example, if you want to move from the middle of the country, from Canada down to Texas if you’re moving oil, then maybe that’s an area that would have to be set-up and structured that way. The challenge would come in more around regulations and the investment in highways to be sure you dedicate the lanes once you move into the roads.

Your trucks have had autonomous features like adaptive steering and cruise control for decades. What’s the next step towards automation?

The next step we get into would be automated transmissions. The transmissions could shift themselves. That’s another level that we’ve had in our vehicles for seven to 10 years. Moving on up the chain, traction control, ABS, electronic stability control. All things that are on cars but also on tractors that help out with skill compensation. Even now, in our current product, we have radars, digital cameras on our vehicles that are helping with the crash mitigation systems we have on our trucks.

What are the differences between rules and regulations for passenger vehicles and trucks?

The main difference is the way fuel efficiency is measured. For passenger cars, it’s miles per gallon. For Class 8, it’s gallons of tons per mile.

But, it’s all in its infancy stages at this point. I think that’s where our industry will have to help drive the regulations, so we don’t have big differences between state to state. From a commerce perspective, we can move across the country without any type of hurdles or barriers.

Do you think that we might see fully autonomous trucks driving sooner than passenger cars?

I don’t think so. I think what we’ll see first from our world and the trucking world, is platooning. Platooning is where one truck, or two trucks, or three trucks run together, almost like a train on the highway. What’s going on there is the vehicles have all the equipment on board. It’s got to be semi-autonomous, but there’s still a driver in the seat. Through platooning, the lead truck is like the conductor of the train. The drivers that are connected in the train behind the conductor, they’re really hands off at that point.

We’re doing a study with Texas A&M on that right now. We’re looking at, if a car was to cut in the middle of the truck, how do the trucks react?

The real big benefit of that is going to be additional safety, as well as additional fuel economy. Just like how the guys in NASCAR tuck up and drive very closely, these trucks will do the same thing. And they’ll improve the fuel economy of the total load.

Can you explain why that’s safer?

In your driving instruction, they talk about driving with a two-second gap between you and the car in front of you. There’s a reaction time you have from the time you see a brake light come on, to when your brain sees it and your foot reaches over to the pedal. You can cover maybe sixty, seventy feet before you actually hit the brake pedal. If you have automated equipment that’s doing that, that reaction time to braking is going to be almost real time versus the human interaction of having to do that. By that alone, you’re able to close the gap and not have the delay from a person having to be part of the process of holding control of the vehicle.

This is a journey that we are on as an industry, as a country, both automotive and truck. The technology is coming on very fast. From my state the technology will probably be ahead of our regulations and our society’s readiness for this. That’s going to be the challenge. The challenge will be going from country to an industry perspective. Independent of getting full autonomous, definitely this technology will make our vehicles safer, will make them more fuel efficient, and it will make our customers, from a fleet perspective, more reliable in operations as the technology becomes real-time.

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