Let us begin with Volvo’s SARTRE project, which involves the development of a so called “Road Train.” What exactly is a road train? It is a group of vehicles connected through wireless technologies, which are then able to follow one another autonomously, while the driver of the vehicle is able to deal with e-mails, phone calls or grab a bite to eat. These road trains are commonly led by a professional Volvo truck driver, and allow the drivers to retain control if they wish to leave the road train, which can result in an array of benefits. Most importantly, fuel efficiency would improve, as the cars all drive at the same speed, eliminating the need for acceleration. The wind resistance is also reduced as the vehicles are able to drive incredibly close to one another, at a distance of approximately 1 meter, without the need to worry about a potential collision. Obviously, the freedom to take the hands off the wheel, which allows drivers to relax and catch their breath, is the icing on the cake.
The benefits for logistics companies is even more immense, as they are capable of having multiple trucks autonomously follow the lead driver, allowing them to save on labour costs as well as deliver higher quantities of freight in a shorter and more fuel-efficient manner. The project looks promising, as it has endured six years of development, over 10,000 km of testing and live demonstrations on highways in Spain.
Another key development in the trucking industry still largely neglected is the “super-wide” tires. Despite existing roughly a decade, these tires have an estimated market share of 5-10% depending on the region. So what are super-wide tires? A typical truck consists of 16 wheels, and the super-wide tires are intended to cut this number to 8 wheels instead. The use of these tires not only trims the number of replacements or repairs, as they are capable of enduring longer trips through harsher terrains, but also benefit the efficiency and emissions of the vehicle. The use of super-wide tires can reduce the rolling resistance by roughly 4% which is highly correlated with a reduction in overall energy used per journey. However, the most important factor may be that the truck drivers themselves seem to prefer the wide-tires for the way they feel while driving. A happy driver, especially one that must travel great distances, can only be good news for OEMs.
Similar to the connected cars industry, the connected truck is also being developed at a rapid pace. Technologies that ensure driver safety such as cameras for reversing or parking, as well as traffic detection already exist in numerous truck models today. Highway cruise control is also in the midst of the testing phase; Daimler trucks have been conducting trial-runs on the Autobahn for half a year now, under differing weather and traffic conditions using the “Daimler Highway Pilot” system. Not only is it capable of recognizing certain patterns, but also able to change gears more efficiently than the driver (5% less emissions). The driver of course is able to retain control at any point, particularly in cases of emergencies, but if there are none, they are able to relax during the highway portions of the journey, which comprise the majority of the trip.
Finally, what about the possibility of utilizing longer or larger trucks? The EU has strict regulations on truck size at roughly 12.1 meters, while their freight counterparts (train and cargo ships) are allowed containers of 13-15 meters. Increasing the length and size of the trucks would not only decrease wind resistance, but also allow them to carry higher quantities of freight, thus decreasing the number of journeys and fuel. While this may not align with the trend that trucks are traveling shorter distances, this increase in cargo size could greatly benefit the cross-country journeys.