In the spring of 2015, US truck company Freightliner made headlines with the presentation of the first road-registered autonomous heavy vehicle in the history of commercial road transport.
The OEM’s Inspiration Truck had received official clearance to operate on a public highway in the US state of Nevada and made the whole world pause for a moment and marvel at the ingenuity of 21st-century trucking.
What followed was a tidal wave of new design concepts aiming to reinterpret or expand upon Freightliner’s ambitious project, which had swallowed some US$4.3 billion (€3.69 billion) over a decade of intense research and development.
The company’s European cousin, Mercedes-Benz, for example, went on to operate the world’s first autonomous production truck on a public highway less than half year after the US presentation, and a range of established truck OEMs in the US and Japan – from Scania through to Isuzu and Hino – also started exploring the idea of self-managed transportation systems.
But Freightliner’s history-making reveal didn’t only stir up incumbent businesses; it also introduced a new, less predictable variable to the US$8.1-trillion (€6.9 trillion)* global transport and logistics market – Silicon Valley. Inspired by the opportunity to fundamentally reinvent a century-old business model, a new breed of small, highly responsive start-up businesses jumped on the bandwagon, with the goal of disrupting the heavy vehicle space in the same way Tesla shook up the automotive one.
San Francisco company Otto, for example, entered the scene in January 2016 with the idea of developing an autonomous aftermarket kit for heavy vehicles. Founded by former Google staff, it was acquired by Uber only eight months after launching and completed the world’s first autonomous shipment – a load of 51,744 cans of beer – in October 2016.
Only a year on, fellow Californian company, Embark, broke out of the slipstream with a similarly compelling concept – a form of Artificial Intelligence known as Deep Neural Nets (DNNs) that can be retrofitted to any existing truck. According to CEO and co-founder, Alex Rodrigues, who collected another US$15 million (€12.9 million)* in funding last month, DNNs “allow the truck to learn from its own experience – much like humans learn from practice”.
Despite that intense focus on automating modern logistics systems, however, even the most advanced players in the space rarely comment on how digitation could affect the way we design and handle non-motorised transport equipment – arguably because funding is often directed at improving the propelled unit first before focusing on the load-bearing part of the combination.
In a historic shift of market dynamics, the resulting void has now been addressed by the entertainment industry. In February 2017, James Mangold’s R-rated superhero movie, Logan, dared to ask the question how automating the powered unit could affect the way we look at articulated combinations as a whole – in turn once again flashing the global spotlight on the innovation potential of modern trucking.
About midway through the second act of the critically acclaimed picture, which is set in a dystopian 2029, protagonist Logan is traveling on a freeway among an armada of self-driving, cab-less ‘pods’ carrying shipping containers – effectively pre-empting a new stage of automation where traditional commercial vehicles have become obsolete and the load-carrying unit is handling both cargo and propulsion.
According to Nick Pugh, who worked as a design consultant on the project, Mangold insisted on depicting the future of transport as accurately as possible in the movie, with a strong focus on actual cargo handling as opposed to automated driving alone. “My job as vehicle designer was to present ideas that realistically portrayed what the near-term future might look like on US roads,” he says. “While [Mangold] wanted many of the cars to simply be aged versions of today’s vehicles, he also wanted a few key elements to be futuristic – including the robotic semi-trucks or ‘auto trucks’, as we called them.”
Focusing solely on the powered unit, Pugh says, quickly proved insufficient during the conceptualisation phase, mostly because – unlike the many real-world businesses that are currently working on the same topic – there was no need for him and his team to prioritise which technical challenge to overcome first. “As I worked on the design for these vehicles, I realised there was the potential to present a larger systemic infrastructure concept that best portrayed a realistic version of the cargo industry of the future,” he explains – referring to recent advancements in the shipping industry, where autonomous vessels are expected to set sail as early as 2018.
To Pugh, Freightliner et al.’s move to automate commercial vehicles is therefore but the first step into a much more complex future. “Recent developments…are setting the stage for the inevitable automation of the logistics industry as a whole, especially with view to container transport,” he says. “For Logan, we wanted to introduce a truck design that reflected the whole industrial shipping cycle rather than just a stylised rig.”
As a result, Pugh and his team divided the existing truck-and-trailer architecture into three distinct functional parts that “work together as a complete, autonomous vehicle within the overall intermodal freight transport network”.
First up is the so-called Pilot Module (PM), which Pugh says is “the brain and lead part” of the combination, taking the place of the truck. Pugh envisions it to be propelled by four “powerful electric motors and an array of advanced batteries” that give it a sufficiently long range and high torque, even under pressure. He adds, “Because it is the lead component of the combination, the PM requires a folding front fairing cap that gives it good aerodynamic properties with and without an attached container.”
Pugh says the PM unit may also feature a robotic arm that can automatically attach to the trailing unit and perform “some maintenance” on itself and the other parts of the combination. “Because there is no need for a driving cab with a full interior and all the weight that it adds, the PM may only need two axles to carry the same payload as a traditional semi,” he shares. “The simplified electric drivetrain, fully robotic control, and fewer axles and moving parts should make the auto truck significantly cheaper to build and operate [than a current-day unit].”
In Nick’s vision, the PM is followed by a Slave Module (SM), which “makes up the rear wheels of the rig and attaches itself to the load unit when ready to take a long trip,” he explains. “The SM, too, has batteries and two electric motors on board, giving it the ability to help power the whole rig. It also is the attachment point for subsequent SMs and trailers to ‘stack’ on to the rear, allowing fleets to create modular road trains of significant length.”
For aerodynamic and mechanical efficiency, Nick says he envisions SMs to be able to attach and detach themselves while moving, “therefore creating long stacks that make up high-speed road trains on the open freeway” – effectively morphing self-driving truck research with the industry’s efforts to make platooning a reality.
The centrepiece of Nick’s vision is the Free-Standing Trailer (FST), an intermediary load platform that may also be compatible with existing container skels, he says, even though this may limit payload. Much like a swap body, Nick says the FST he developed boasts folding legs that flip down when the driving modules are detached. “The legs can be contracted by the PM using hydraulic pressure, thus lowering the FST with a container load in on site storage.”
To complete the task of creating a “believable cargo transport system” for the movie, Nick says he envisioned an integrated network without any kind of human involvement. “The director wanted the trucks in the movie to represent the ultimate impersonal and brutish force. Making a rig design that was based in a system with no people seemed like a good way to most realistically convey the brief,” he says – indicating the need for a more detailed debate on the future of human labour should his design inspire any future transportation concepts.
Much in the tradition of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, Pugh’s work on Logan may not provide any ultimate answers to the future of trucking, he admits, but once again made the world pause and wonder what the future of commercial road transport might look like – not only from the truck’s point of view, but from a more holistic perspective.
*Transparency Market Research, 2015 data. The market is expected to reach $15.5 trillion (€13.3 trillion) by 2023.