Not yet, but it's close. Radar and camera technology have introduced the possibility of completely autonomous vehicles. Currently in the commercial truck market vehicles equipped with this his technology are capable of self braking when a vehicle is detected too close in the trucks path. The truck is braked to a safe distance at no more than the required braking rate than necessary. The truck is then throttled up to maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle ahead. Cameras and sensors on either side allow for automated interruption of lane changes when a potential obstruction is approaching at a potentially unsafe rate on either side. Adaptive cruise control uses the same cameras and sensors to allow the truck to be fully autonomous on freeways and major interstates. This however still requires a driver to maneuver the truck on and off the major highways. Anti-Roll Stability Suspension Technology has become an industry standard. Designed to sense lateral deviations in the trucks suspension, a powerful microprocessor executes complex algorithms in fractions of a second to control damping between the vehicle body and the wheels.The algorithms use thirteen attached sensors to compute the programmed cycle of a "Pulse Width Modulated" electrical signal. All of these calculations are done in time to slow the truck to a safe speed for the particular maneuver. In todays trucks the driver is necessary but we'll explore what the next generation brings.
The Next Generation Semi Truck
The semi trucks currently in development will not bear much of a resemblance to what we see today. Aerodynamics, fuel economy and safety appear to be the primary concerns of the 2nd generation semi's. We've all seen the side skirts and nose configurations on today's equipment designed to increase fuel efficiency by reducing drag. You've not seen anything yet. Walmart, in collaboration with Peterbuilt, Great Dane Trailer and Capstone Turbine company have built the next gen Walmart prototype. Bill Kahn from Peterbuilt describes how the tractor design achieves a 20% decrease in drag coefficient by moving the single seat driver cockpit to the center of the truck and relocating the radiator from the front of the truck. The 20% decrease in drag translates directly to a 10% improvement in fuel efficiency. Adam Hill from Great Dane Trailer describes the next gen trailer components. The trailer is manufactured using primarily carbon fiber. While maintaining structural integrity the trailer has shed 4000 pounds. Steve Gillette from Capstone Turbine describes how the power plant of the next gen tractor will function. The Capstone turbo is not a gas or diesel turbo. It runs on natural gas or other fuels creating almost no emissions. So, we've touched on Aeordynamics and fuel economy but what about safety. Next gen sensors and camera will provide additional safety in traffic but what about potential physical injury to the driver in the increasingly unlikely event of a collision. Luigi Colani, a European Bio designer has built a next gen tractor with the single driver cockpit design where, in the event of a collision, the driver seat is propelled backward, on a rail, deep into the tractor cabin to remove the driver from the front or side impact area.
3rd Generation Semi's
The 3rd gen semi's may well be driverless. There is much debate on the topic from labor laws to safety. Never the less, by most accounts, today we are at least one generation away from this potential reality. Class A drivers are in tremendous demand. Driverless trucks would certainly help solve this problem. The research that Google is currently involved in with their driverless vehicle will no doubt be the basis upon which a driverless platform could be built. Cloud computing and satellite technology look to be the library and guidance systems from which the autonomous vehicle will receive its' necessary software updates and driving instructions for any trip. Theoretically, this seems very doable. Practically it may be not that simple. We'll have to wait and see.