Autonomous semitrucks

558 article Autonomous trucking

Imagine full truck loads with a pick-up in Oss, The Netherlands and delivery in Lyon, France. A local driver moves the trailer from the pick-up address in Oss to a designated hub near the highway. The trailer then autonomously moves (electric) from this hub to a designated hub in Lyon. Rosa Thuis had a critical look at the possibilities of autonomous semitrucks.


In 2019, the highest selling car in the Netherlands was the Tesla Model  3.  It  sold  29.922  units.  Two  of  the  strongest  features  of the Tesla Model 3 are that it is electric and it has autopilot. Tesla  is  not  alone  in  including  these  strong  selling  points  –  BMW,  Mercedes  Benz,  Nissan  and  Volvo  also  sell  cars  with  these  features.  However,  auto  pilot  semi  trucks  have  not  yet  hit the market.

On 6 September 2019, Vos Logistics outlined four main topics that will impact the industry in the near future as part of its 75th anniversary, ‘Imagine Vos Logistics 100!’. These topics are:

Sustainability through energy transition, Digitalization and data analytics, The impact of e-commerce on supply chains, andHow  autonomous  driving  and  robotics  will  impact  the way of working in logistics.

The  development  of  an  auto  pilot  semi-truck  will  be  a  major  step  in  digitizing  the  trucking  industry  and  be  a  main  driver  for  other  fundamental  changes  in  our  industry.  Some  truck  manufacturers and a number of start-ups are in the process of developing autonomous semi-trucks. This paper will examine autonomous  trucking  and  look  at  how  it  will  change  the  trucking industry.

What is an autonomous driving vehicle?

An  autonomous  vehicle  is  a  vehicle  that  is  able  to  operate  without human interaction. This means that no driver is needed. This may mean that there isn’t even a space for a driver in the vehicle. There are six levels of automation, with level ‘0” being a vehicle that requires full human control. The other 5 levels are explained in the following info graphic:

  1. Driver Assistance
    The ability to support the driver with either steering,
    accelerating or breaking.
  2. Partial Automation
    Able to oversee the three activities in some conditions,
    however, complete attention is required.
  3. Conditional Driving Automation
    The vehicle can perform most tasks, but human
    override is still required.
  4. High Driving Automation
    The vehicle is able to perform all driving tasks, however
    geofencing is required and human override is still possible.
  5. Full Driving Automation
    The vehicle performs all the driving tasks and no human
    attention or interaction is needed.

Solutions without drivers?

Autonomous  semi-trucks  are  already  being  developed  and  tested. Whereas each company has a different strategy, they share the goal of developing a semi-truck that doesn’t require a driver to execute all the tasks. Volvo is currently developing Vera,  a  self-driving  electric  vehicle  with  Level  5  autonomy,  where  there  is  no  cabin  for  a  driver.  The  business  model  of  this particular vehicle is to operate on a predefined route, in order to create seamless transportation. Volvo is testing Vera in Goteborg on a run that involves transporting goods from a logistics centre to a port terminal.

Einride    is    another    Swedish    company    developing    an    autonomous  truck.  Like  Vera,  the  Einride  test  truck  has  no  space for a driver and includes certain driving actions controlled by a human by remote control. Whereas Vera is mainly focused on  short-haulage,  the  Einride  pod  has  the  ability  to  carry  out  different types of transportation. For example, haulage of high-volume shipments, urban deliveries and distribution. The main difference  between  the  two,  is  that  the  Einride  vehicle  still needs remote driver assistance.

Innovations that still require drivers

Not  all  developers  are  planning  on  producing  vehicles  with  Level  5  autonomy,  most  are  aiming  for  Level  4.  Companies  such  as  Embark,  Waymo,  Tu  Simple,  Kodiak  Robotics,, AutoX and Paccar are planning on developing a semi-truck where  a  driver  is  still  needed.  Most  of  these  companies  are  developing a vehicle that is able to drive autonomously from A to B while the option for a human to override is still possible, but not mandatory.

For  some  companies,  the  strategy  is  more  specific.  For example,   at   Embark,   the   business   model   is   to   develop   autonomous vehicles that can drive from one hub to another hub. This means that the semi-truck would mainly drive on the highway, rather than also on the smaller roads to a particular customer  location.  Then,  Tu  Simple  and  extend  the  business model in a way that the semi-trucks will be enhanced with 360-degree awareness in any type of weather and with a system that can detect obstacles up to either 1,000 or 1,600 meters away. This does not change the way the vehicle drives, but  how  the  system  behind  it  works.  Aurora  Innovation,  Ike,  AutoX and Hyundai specifically focus on the hardware, software and  data  services  that  allow  vehicles  to  be  autonomous.  So,  as shown, there are many companies with different strategies seeking to fundamentally change the trucking industry.

Probably  the  most  talked  about  model  under  development  is  the  Tesla  autonomous  semi-truck.  It  will  follow  the  Level  3  autonomy, while others mainly focus on Level 4. The Tesla Semi will therefore enhance the same opportunities for truck drivers as it does for the drivers of the Model 3 car. Lastly, is offering semi-trucks with Level 2 autonomy, where the vehicle has  full  adaptive  cruise  control,  proactive  lane  centering  and  automatic emergency braking. Another interesting feature that many  of  these  companies  are  working  on  is  an  autonomous  vehicle that is electric or hydrogen based.

Benefits from an autonomous driving semi-truck

The fact that so many companies are developing and planning to  start  producing  autonomous  semi-trucks  prompts  the  question  –  why  are  they?  One  reason  that  autonomous  trucks  are  interesting  to  carriers  is  increased  road  safety.  Each  day  in  The  Netherlands  alone  there  are  17  semi-trucks  involved in an accident or standing on the side of the road with problems.  Between  2009  and  2018  there  were,  on  average,  80  traffic  deaths  a  year  where  a  semi-truck  was  involved. With  autonomous  trucking  there  would  be  no  human  errors  stemming  from  using  devices  or  falling  asleep  while  driving.  These   errors   would   be   eliminated   by   the   new   systems.   However  before  autonomous  vehicles  are  able  to  increase  travel safety, they have to be tested extensively. It is only once it is sure that they will make no mistakes that the vehicle could increase traffic safety.

In addition to safety, cost and travel time can be decreased. As human involvement is not necessary for Level 4, the necessary breaks required would be limited. At Level 5, drivers are only needed for certain times on a remote location and not inside the trucks. The truck is able to anticipate to the traffic quicker than humans, so the driving becomes smoother.  This means that autonomous trucking has the potential to decrease both driver and fuel costs. Labour and fuel together make up around 80% of the total costs for logistics operations. Logistics service providers are looking at every possibility to reduce these costs. And  as  mentioned  earlier,  the  combination  of  developing  an  autonomous  semi-truck  that  can  run  on  either  hydrogen  or  BEV could really change the cost model of the truck.

As autonomous trucks drive more smoothly, the possibility of driving with a battery are increased. The truck’s smooth drive means the battery can be used to full capacity and won’t need to be charged. This way, the truck retains the crucial benefit of not having to stop very often.

Ideally, autonomous trucks will drive between hubs during the night. The chance of disruption is then lower because traffic is  lighter.  This  would  work  well  in  combination  with  either  hydrogen or BEV, greatly reducing noise as well as emissions. Together,  these  newly  developed  techniques  could  therefore  mean that autonomous driving has the potential to increase the road safety, decrease costs and limit travel time.

Time to market

While  this  vision  for  the  future  almost  sounds  too  good  to  be  true,  companies  are  actually  already  planning  to  market  the autonomous trucks soon. Most American developers are already in the testing stage. For example, at the beginning of  2020,  Waymo  announced  that  the  testing  would  start  in  Texas,  New  Mexico,  Arizona  and  California.  This  region  is  popular  for  testing  self-driving  trucks,  as  the  weather  and  roads  are  favorable.  Embark  and  Kodiak  are  testing  and  driving there as well. Kodiak has already started with the first commercial  deliveries,  and  has  eight  autonomous  vehicles  within its fleet. Subsequently, Tu Simple has completed five round  trips  within  a  two-week  period,  hauling  USPS  trailers  for more than 1,000 miles.

While  most  companies  developing  autonomous  semi-trucks  are  located  in  the  Americas,  Hyundai  is  developing  trucks  in  South Korea, AutoX is developing autonomous trucks in Hong Kong  and  Volvo  and  Einride  are  based  in  Sweden.  Before  autonomous  trucks  are  launched  in  The  Netherlands,  the  testing phase and introduction phase will first be completed in  the  home  country  of  the  truck  company.  However,  some  companies have indicated that they would like to launch their trucks straight onto the commercial market, which means that the trucks could be here sooner. The exact timing, however, is not yet known.

Imagine autonomous driving at Vos Logistics

Depending  on  the  solutions  offered,  transport  companies already  benefit  from  technical  solutions  being  used  in autonomous  vehicles.  Or  looking  at  it  the  other  way  around,  autonomous vehicles will benefit from features currently in use. Think:  adaptive  cruise  control,  automatic  route  planning  and  motor  management  systems  to  optimize  driving  or  camera’s  replacing mirrors. More techniques will enter into the cabin like lidar and autonomous steering. These features support drivers and mean increased safety, economy and efficiency. The next step might be that the driver’s role changes to simply support some parts of the drive and will be replaced in some parts of the transport route.

To  give  you  an  idea,  imagine  full  truck  loads  with  a  pick-up  in  Oss,  The  Netherlands  and  delivery  in  Lyon,  France. A  local  driver  moves  the  trailer  from  the  pick-up  address  in  Oss  to  a  designated  hub  near  the  highway.  The  trailer  then autonomously  moves  (electric)  from  this  hub  to  a  designated  hub  in  Lyon.  Ideally,  this  would  happen  during  the  night,  avoiding congestion. The next morning a local French truck picks  up  the  trailer  from  the  hub  in  Lyon  to  perform  the  last  mile for delivery.

Utopian or realistic?

As Steven Covey suggests, it’s best to ‘begin with the end in mind’.  So  let’s  consider  for  a  moment  that  this  is  picture  is  a  realistic  one.  What  is  needed  to  get  to  this  point?  We  have  already elaborated on the technical aspects in this white paper. To  make  this  ambition  a  reality,  we  also  need  to  anticipate  issues in areas such as infrastructure, transport management and monitoring systems, organizational changes, social impact and  acceptance,  European  legislation,  liability  and  insurance  and last but not least, the cost of transportation.

There  are  lots  of  reasons  why  this  development  will  be  of  great  benefit  to  society  from  a  social,  environmental  and business point of view. On the other hand, it’s likely that it will feed opposition and resistance from different interest groups. Managing this resistance in a realistic and useful timeframe is probably the most challenging part of realizing this evolution.

About Rosa Thuis

Rosa ThuisRosa  Thuis  (22)  is  a  fourth  year  International  Logistics  Engineering             student             at    Breda    University    of    applied    sciences,    where    she    will    graduate    from    in  July  2021.  Rosa  finds technology  and  innovation  the most interesting topics, specifically  combined  with logistics.   For   example, using   block   chain   within   the supply chain, improving warehousing  by  AI  or  AR,  and  innovations  as  autonomous  driving.  Besides  this  intern-ship for Vos Logistics, Rosa has interned for DHL Supply Chain Thailand  and  Nakheel  Oman  Development  Company.  During  her last studying year, she is doing an Exchange at NUI Galway and will start her final internship in February. For the upcoming years, Rosa’s goal is to pursue a Master’s degree in technology and  innovation.  However,  first  she  would  like  to  gain  more experience in the working field.

About Vos Logistics

Vos  Logistics  is  a  specialist  in  a  wide  range  of  transport  and  logistics  services.  Through  a  network  of  30  group-owned  locations, the company is active throughout Europe. Solutions offers customer-specific logistics solutions, from forwarding, warehousing,  value-added  services  and  distribution  to  full  supply   chain   solutions   in   which   Vos   Logistics   assumes   management of all of the customer’s goods flow. In the bulk and  volume  (Mega  and  High  Volume)  transport  markets,  Vos  Logistics  is  one  of  the  largest  road  hauliers  in  Europe.  With  3,000 employees, it operates a modern fleet of 1,400 trucks, 4,000 loading units and 340,000 m2 of storage space.


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Please  note  that  citing  from  this  article  is  appreciated  with  the  connotation of the source and author.



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