Electric trucks are here, autonomous trucks are next

  • Elon Musk reveals the new Tesla Semi and transport truck. Image credit: Alexis Georgeson / Tesla Motors
  • Concept image of the Tesla Semi. Image credit: Tesla Motors
  • A new kind of truck driver as envisioned by Freightliner’s Inspiration semi-autonomous big rig. Less time driving, more time analyzing. Image credit: Freightliner / Diamler
  • Concept image of the Tesla Semi. Image credit: Tesla Motors
  • Daimler tests vehicle-to-vehicle communication and platooning. Image credit: Diamler
  • The Nikola One. Image credit: Nikola
Date:21 November 2017 Tags:, , , , , ,

Last week, Tesla introduced its first electric truck, but it’s really only the first step into a new era of how we move things. Here’s a look at electric and autonomous trucks.

By Chuck Tannert

When you hear about futuristic driverless tech, you tend to hear about systems built for autonomous cars, like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise. But the truth is some of the most important “autonomous” vehicles won’t ride on four wheels. They’ll ride on 18.

And for good reason. Tractor trailers move 70 per cent of all US freight, account for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse emissions in the U.S. They are also involved in a growing number of fatal road accidents. Making these purveyors of product better, greener, and safer should be a high priority. Just in the past three years, auto giants like Daimler, Uber, Volvo and Waymo have started experimenting with smarter trucks. They’re rethinking what powers them or designing self-driving systems to guide them. And now, there’s Tesla.

Last night Tesla, known for its electric cars, introduced an electric 18-wheeler and a transport truck of its own. Part of the standard equipment list for both is the company’s most advanced driver-assist package, Enhanced Auotpilot. It includes emergency braking, lane keeping, blind-spot monitoring and more. Everything needed to make tedious highway driving easier for the driver and safer.

It also signals that the electric big rig is here, and autonomous trucks aren’t far behind.

(Semi) Autonomous

No truly autonomous vehicles drive on the road today. Instead, these new kinds of cars are all “semi-autonomous”. Meaning, they are equipped with varying degrees of driver-assist tech that take over some of the more tedious tasks about driving. Regulators have labeled these so-called autonomous vehicles with levels, starting with Level 0 through Level 5.

All semi autonomous cars and trucks primarily use the same tech for their brains, eyes, and ears. Optical, radar, lidar, sonar sensors collect data, computers process that data, and robotics finish the job. But unlike your typical four-door sedan, trucks will need many more eyes and more powerful data processors.

“Trucks are not just large cars,” says Raj Rajkumar an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He says trucks have more blind spots, are harder to control and bring to a stop, and are more vulnerable in bad weather. “There are a lot more variables to consider, so [the systems] need to be customised.”

Trucks adapting

But trucking companies say driver-assist tech will change shipping dramatically in the next few years (not decades like the car), even if a human remains behind the wheel.

“In the near term, we will see a growth in trucks with Level 2 driver assists like blind spot monitoring, emergency braking, lane keeping, and various alerts,” says Robert Haag, vice president of operations for Perfect Transport. “Then, we’ll probably see trucks with Level 3 or 4 capability features within three to four years.” Musk agrees as he plans to have his Tesla Semi on the road by 2019 equipped with a Level 3 driving system.

Level 3 is “conditional” autonomy, meaning that within a specific environments and road conditions, the vehicle can drive itself. But a driver needs to be on call if the vehicle enters unknown territory. For example, Audi’s Level 3 traffic jam assist AI—the only Level 3 technology out there—can handle all driving duties on a traffic-jammed highway at speeds below 59,5 km/h. If traffic clears or speed exceeds 37 miles per hour, the driver needs to take the wheel.

A look at piloted driving:

At Level 4, or “high” automation, a vehicle can handle most normal driving tasks on its own. However, driver still needs to take over during poor weather conditions or other unusual environments. For example, a Level 4 truck can’t navigate a sprawling urban environment like Manhattan, but it can navigate a geofenced section, say, from 14th to 57th streets between 2nd and 8th avenues. Outside this pre-defined area, a human will have to manage all or most driving duties.

“[Drivers] may become the highway equivalent of an airline pilot.”

Then comes Level 5—full autonomy. This means the car or truck can drive itself anytime, anywhere, under any condition. No limitations. At this point, a driver is merely additional cargo. But for now, Level 5 remains a dream. There are lots of variables to work out before cars, let alone big rigs, will be able to pilot themselves in urban settings and can achieve ‘last mile’ delivery, meaning door-to-door delivery with no humans required.

“Driving from highway-exit-to-exit is much easier than dealing with the special conditions of an urban environment,” says Rajkumar. “Driving in a [city] requires even better technology, practical experience, and appropriate regulations…[developers] aren’t even close to that.”

And truck makers agree. Daimler, who makes 40 per cent of trucks in North America, says they’re not getting rid of drivers anytime soon. Instead, the company is trying to make driving safer, less tedious, and more environmentally friendly. A smarter truck could mean a better job for truckers, which will hopefully help the industry fix its current driver shortage problem.

The driver

But even if drivers remain in the cab, your average truck driver’s duties will still change in some big ways. “[Drivers] may become the highway equivalent of an airline pilot… optimising routes, monitoring gauges and instruments, and operating the vehicle in the first and last miles,” says Daimler’s Paige Jarmer. “But they won’t go away.”

Some companies disagree, believing trucker robots might help ferry trucks down the highways with a little help from HQ. “For example, there might be a main data centre where people are monitoring the fleet on the highway using virtual reality goggles,” says Nikola’s Milton. “If something goes wrong…that monitor can take control remotely…and steer the truck out of danger.”

Big trucks might even become rolling fulfilment centres. When an order is placed, a nearby autonomous big rig carrying that product is dispatched. Then an off-ramp truck—with or without a driver— takes the product to your home.

But these ambitious ideas still remain only concepts ripe for exploration. For now, drivers remain.

The electric long-haul conundrum

But like the cars in our garages, trucking’s first big step is evolving beyond its gas-guzzling appetite, and also like its four-wheeled counterparts, that evolution is slow-going. Although you don’t need an electric engine to adopt automation, truck makers like Daimler and Tesla now have these electrified big rigs ready for the road. But there are some big problems that engineers need to figure out if they hope to build electric vehicles capable of doing long stretches of highway driving. It’s a problem not easily solved by batteries. These often take many hours to recharge and have much smaller range than traditional trucks.

“eDrive only makes sense if we can convert a high amount of our electric systems,” says Robert Haag, vice president of operations for Perfect Transport. “That will take time, energy, and a significant financial commitment. It’s just not a proven technology.”

Despite these inherent disadvantages, the electric long-haul semi truck isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when”. Last night, Musk claimed his company’s truck will have a range of 500 miles at max weight and traveling at highway speeds, a situation Musk calls “a worst case scenario”.

Even more impressive, Musk says the truck can be refuelled to the equivalent of 400 miles range in just under 30 minutes using a Tesla Super Mega Charger. That’s about the time it takes to gulp down a cup of coffee. If such range and refuelling times can be actually be achieved (and Tesla can build the recharging infrastructure), the Tesla Semi would be a game-changer.


Musk’s numbers get even more impressive when trucks drive together in a convoy, a process also known as platooning. Thanks to the truck’s highly aerodynamic design, platooning multiple trucks will significantly reduce drag, making trucks even cheaper to run. “Diesel trucks will be two times as expensive to run in this train-like arrangement,” says Musk.

The concept of platooning isn’t new. Volvo and Daimler have run real-world tests using vehicle-to-vehicle communication so two or more trucks can follow each other about 50 feet apart to significantly reduce drag fuel consumption costs. “We are currently actively testing truck pairing (2 connected trucks) on highways in Oregon and Nevada,” says Daimler’s Jarmer. With this system, braking time is reduced to just 0.2-0.3 seconds. In comparison, humans need 1-2 seconds to brake. But none have done it with electrified vehicles.

Although the electric/platooning combination is one vision for future shipping, other companies envision another possibility—ditching the battery entirely. Hydrogen fuel has been around for awhile. In fact, fuel cells powered the electrical systems onboard the Gemini and Apollo space capsules. Now General Motors and Honda are working together to mass produce fuel cells by 2020, and Toyota is releasing its own hydrogen-powered car, the Mirai, in California.

But Nikola is the first truck builder looking to use hydrogen to power its next generation of semis. Because of shorter re-fill times combined with longer driving ranges, Nikola thinks hydrogen could be the future compared to plug-in electric vehicles. Nikola plans to make hydrogen more mainstream. They hope to build 364 fuelling stations in the U.S. by the end of 2019, a year before its first hydrogen-powered truck, the Nikola One, goes on sale. “I think you’ll find it very difficult to find a diesel truck in around five years,” says Nikola’s Milton.

The Harsh Reality

But all these plans likely sound like a utopian version of 21st-century shipping. It somewhat ignores the realities of regulation.

Some of shipping’s biggest challenges come down to simple math. Drivers are limited to 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour window. They must take a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts. After 60 hours of work in a seven-day period, drivers need to take another 34 hours off to “recharge the batteries”.

The problem is trucks only make money when they are in motion. So regulations that keep trucks from hauling goods, keeping trucks moving, must be changed. Flexibility is key.

“As government develops policy, it needs to adopt regulations that allow different technologies to blossom and find their niche,” says American Truck Association’s Michael Cammisa. “Otherwise, companies simply won’t invest in them.”

All states also need to be onboard and playing on a level field for this to work. “What operates in New York must operate all the way to California,” says Haag. “The federal government needs to step in and set the regulations…If every state makes up its own rules, it becomes a huge threat to the flow of interstate commerce.” And no company in its right mind would invest in technology that makes shipping harder than it already is.

But the Tesla event was a moment of change of long-haul trucking. In about 20 minutes, Musk detailed his vision for the new, diesel-less future of big rigs, one of our world’s biggest polluters. If Musk’s promises hold up, electric trucks will finally be less expensive per mile with at least some driverless technology will be behind the wheel.

You won’t see these ghost semis rolling down the highway any time soon. However, if Musk has his way, that day is coming quickly.

From: PM USA