The vision of autonomous trucks is within reach. This year, however, the latest trends in the truck industry are more pragmatic than ever before and driven not only by economic pressures but also by the desire for greater safety and improved environmental friendliness. Now, more than 1,000 exhibitors distinguished by ‘Truck Competence’ are set to present innovative solutions revolving around tomorrow’s truck at the coming Automechanika Frankfurt from 13 to 17 September 2016.
Weight saving, CO2 reduction, electronics and networking – it would seem that the latest mega trends in the truck sector can be boiled down to these four terms. However, this superficial summary offers absolutely no insights into the innovative and pioneering projects, products and solutions currently being developed in the truck industry. And it does not have to mean the advent of tomorrow’s fully driver-less truck. Many components, assistants and systems on which the trucks of the future are based are already tried, tested and available. Not only transport companies and fleet operators profit from these developments, which result in lower fuel consumption, greater operational availability, higher payloads and improved economic efficiency for their vehicles. The added margin of safety also benefits other road users and, last but not least, the environment – thanks to resource-friendly drive systems and lower emissions.
Higher Payloads, Lower Fuel Consumption
The long-running trend to lighter trucks continues unabated in 2016. After all, a reduction in unladen weight means a higher payload or, alternatively, lower fuel consumption – at all events, it means a more efficient vehicle. Less weight begins at the component level, e.g., brake systems or axles. Thus, Automechanika exhibitor Knorr-Bremse claims a 10% reduction in weight for its new ST7 trailer brake system compared with the previous model. Manufacturers of engine components, chassis and truck bodies also boast similar weight savings for their latest developments. The trend to ‘downsizing’ in the case of truck and van engines, i.e., smaller engines with the same power output – is a result of the quest for lower unladen weights and, therefore, higher payloads.
Start-up company CarbonTT aims to score in the truck business with a weight saving of almost 50%. Based in the Airbus Composite Technology Centre in the North German town of Stade, the company’s lightweight materials designers draw their inspiration from aircraft construction and have developed processes for the mass production of large-scale carbon parts, inter alia, for the truck industry. With a refrigerated box body made of carbon, the young company, which will make a presentation at the ‘Tomorrow’s Service & Mobility’ section at Automechanika 2016, has already demonstrated what can be achieved using carbon. Based on a light commercial vehicle with a gross weight of 3.5 tonnes, the refrigerated body has a payload of 1,500 kg – almost 500 kg more than a conventional refrigerated vehicle in this category – despite refrigeration unit and insulation.
Alternative Drive Systems
Another start-up to be found in the ‘Festhalle’, which is devoted to the subject of ‘Tomorrow’s Service & Mobility’, is Orten Electric-Trucks. Founded by body manufacturer Orten in 2015, the company fits electric drive systems to conventional light commercial vehicles and 7.5 tonne trucks. Combined with an extra-lightweight body developed by the parent company, the result is vehicles for city-centre distribution, which operate free of emissions locally and with payloads similar to that of comparable diesels over distances of up to 100 km. The latest example is the E 75 AT, a 7.5 tonne truck based on the Mercedes Atego. Fast-charging lithium iron phosphate batteries and a high-torque electric-synchronous motor generating 90 kW / 122 hp ensure the Orten E 75 AT is ideal for everyday duties. Delivery vehicles covering small distances in a city-centre environment are predestined for fully electric operations and, despite the higher costs, the first series-production trucks are already in daily use in many European cities.
The trend is not only towards fully-electric vehicles. Gas is also regarded as an environmentally friendly alternative to diesel, which still powers around 95% of all commercial vehicles. With the planned expansion of the retail network, LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas – natural gas liquefied by cooling) or CNG (Compressed Natural Gas – natural gas compressed under high pressure) would be suitable as low-emission fuels for trucks operating on extended distribution routes and for long-distance work. The manufacturers already have the necessary engine technology at their disposal.
Everything Under Control
The target of lower emissions is also being tackled by system and component suppliers who are looking for ways to further cut fuel consumption. The current trend is towards electronically controlled engine and ancillary components that operate solely on demand and only then consume power. The spectrum ranges from ventilators for engine cooling, via coolant pumps, to oil pumps and air-conditioning compressors. The latest innovation: when rolling downhill, generators or compressors recharge fast-charge batteries, heat accumulators or compressed-air tanks, which can release this energy again when it is needed. All, as it were, free of charge. The energy-saving potential of the various measures – depending on the scope and intensity of the overall package – can be as high as ten percent or more.
Additional fuel-saving opportunities are offered by new cruise-control systems or GPS-aided speed regulators that not only maintain the speed set but also, via GPS, compare the position currently reached with the topographical material stored in the system and thus react ‘foresightedly’ to gradients – generally speaking better than any driver – including gaining momentum before a climb or coasting before the descent. These systems are already available in many new trucks under resonant names such as Predictive Powertrain Control (PPC), Efficient Cruise, Active Prediction, I-See and Predictive Cruise Control.
Today, assistance systems continue to boom in the truck sector. Although electronic anti-skid systems, automatic emergency braking systems and lane assistants are obligatory for new heavy commercial vehicles, the process of development goes on. For example, Daimler recently launched a new emergency braking assistant with pedestrian recognition for its Actros trucks. And ZF has joined forces with Wabco to produce its new electronic evasive manoeuvre assistant for trucks, which the company will present at the coming Automechanika in conjunction with the ZF Innovation Truck 2016. The system detects a stationary obstacle, such as the end of a traffic jam and, if there is no longer sufficient room for an emergency stop, automatically steers the truck around it. At the same time, a specially adapted stability programme prevents the vehicle tipping over, jack-knifing or skidding. Another ZF system is the ‘Highway Driving Assist’ (HAD), a lane-control system that the company’s engineers originally developed for cars and have now adapted for use in trucks. In distinction to conventional lane assistance systems, HDA not only warns the driver before the vehicle actually leaves the lane but also actively and independently steers the vehicle to keep in it automatically in the lane.
Its developers call it ‘semi-autonomous driving’. However, for the last step towards a fully autonomous truck, it is not enough that the vehicle be equipped with all kinds of electronic assistants, sensors, processors and electric motors. Only when the truck can communicate with its surroundings, e.g., with other vehicles, does it have all the information necessary to operate autonomously, that is to say, without any input from the driver. In the spring of this year, six European truck manufacturers demonstrated that this is already technically feasible by driving in columns (platooning) from their various headquarters to Rotterdam. For the ‘European Truck Platooning Challenge’, the manufacturers used trucks networked via WLAN, which continuously exchange data with each other and, therefore, can be electronically coupled with only a small gap of about 15 metres between each of them. Only the first vehicle in the electronically linked chain, the platoon, is actively controlled by a driver. The other trucks follow automatically whereby the networking and the resulting synchronisation of the assistance systems ensures the highest degree of safety. According to the manufacturers, another advantage of platooning is greater economy and environmental friendliness: when running in a platoon, the trucks can achieve fuel savings of between two and eleven percent, depending on their position in the column.
Thus, the vision of autonomous trucks is really within reach. And, thanks to modern materials, new technologies, and networked systems and vehicles, the trends in the truck industry already point to a future with reduced fuel consumption, lower emissions, higher payloads and greater safety.