Future of trucking: electrified, platooned and automated
How many truck drivers will lose their jobs to automation? How safe is wireless electricity? All questions infrastructure specialists are keeping a close eye on as they guide transportation agencies and the industry adapts.
Freight and transportation consultant Josiah Blackwell-Lipkind sees electrification, platooning and automation as three key forces dictating the future of trucking.
The shift toward electrification in the passenger vehicle space is readily gaining speed.
Figure 1 shows the number of light-duty electric vehicle models (that is, electric vehicles with a maximum operating capacity of 8,500 lbs or less) in the US between 2011 and 2019. During this period, the number of such vehicles offered in the US rose from 2 to 72, based on data from the US Department of Energy.
Figure 2 shows total electric vehicle sales in the US between 2011 and 2019. Electric vehicles defined here include both fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
In 2011 there were 17,763 electric vehicle sales nationally. By 2019, this number rose to 326,644 based on data from the US Department of Energy.
A similar transition is inevitable for freight trucks. However, their adoption will likely be slower until cost and range restrictions are no longer prohibitive.
In the short term, available charging stations are critical to the adoption of electric vehicles.
They will likely be installed at existing gas stations to replace refueling with recharging. However, in the longer run, electrification will break away from this traditional fill-up, use-up model.
Electrification isn’t simply an emissions-friendly replacement to gasoline or diesel. Gas takes up space and requires a physical connection when refueling. This is not the case with electricity, which can be carried in wires. It’s often imperceptible and only takes up space in the form of batteries.
But batteries are only one method of harnessing electricity. Instead, vehicles could charge while in motion using a continuous and wireless source of power coming straight from the road.
Imagine what this would mean.
Batteries could be smaller and serve purely as a backup power supply. This would make vehicles lighter and more efficient, and it would likely eliminate the need to refill batteries at charging stations. Worrying about the range of electric vehicles, or the driving distance available on a single charge, would also disappear. Trucks carrying fuel to gas stations wouldn’t be needed, as electricity would be wired in from power plants.
It will take time for this technology to be widely used, and electric charging stations will persist for some time. However, the wheels are turning and there is no turning back.
Take for example Indiana’s Department of Transportation. The US agency is partnering with Perdue University and the German start-up Magment, creator of a magnetic concrete that can be electrified and used for wireless electric vehicle charging. In short, the concrete beams power in the form of electromagnetic waves to receivers on the undersides of vehicles.
Another example is the State of Michigan which says it wants to be the first state with a fully functional electrified road to wirelessly charge electric vehicles.
Truck platooning, simply put, is when a lead truck talks to one or more follower trucks using connected vehicle technology. The lead truck makes acceleration or braking decisions, either manually by the driver or with an automated driving system. It also communicates this information in real-time to the follower trucks, allowing for nearly instantaneous, coordinated movements. For example, when the lead truck brakes, the follower trucks react accordingly, essentially allowing the platoon to behave as a single unit.
Platooning permits a single truck driver to direct a group of trucks, reducing labor requirements. It also eliminates the lengthy delay of human reaction times, permitting trucks to travel with shorter following distances. This reduces drag on the follower trucks, which can significantly decrease energy use. Moreover, shorter following distances allow for more efficient use of available road space, lessening congestion and shortening travel times. These technologies even promise to reduce collisions and improve safety.
The adoption of platooning technologies is in progress already. States all across the country are conducting platooning demonstrations, including California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. In anticipation of the shorter following distances permitted by this technology, many states are now re-evaluating their following distance laws.
We won’t see fully driverless vehicles immediately. But from Tesla’s Autopilot feature to the remote space sensing technology, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) to Google’s self-driving car tests, interest in automation is ostensibly growing. If autonomous vehicle technologies haven’t been adopted as quickly as some anticipated, it’s because regulatory and cultural barriers were overlooked. However, many of these barriers are diminishing. As of 2020, over 40 states have considered autonomous vehicle legislation. A recent study by the National Council on Aging and the Volkswagen Group of America found that 70% of seniors trust self-driving technology and intend to use it.
What many people don’t know is that a level of automation has existed in most vehicles for some time now.
- Level 1 automation refers to driver assistance like cruise control, which most vehicles offer.
- Level 2 automation is more involved, where the car controls certain functions like steering and braking while the driver supervises.
Levels 3, 4 and 5 are in development but are not yet ready to hit the market. Regulatory and legal barriers as well as inadequate road infrastructure also pose barriers to these higher levels of automation.
- Level 3 automation means the vehicle can mostly drive on its own in certain circumstances with some driver supervision.
- Level 4 automation involves almost total self-driving capabilities with the option of driver override.
- Level 5 automation refers to a fully automated vehicle with no human involvement.
Imagine a fleet of electric, automated trucks 20 years from now. They will drive in a platoon, each closely following the next. For the most part, they will not stop to recharge at charging stations. Instead, trucks will be powered thanks to in-road technology as they drive. Truck parking will mostly be unnecessary. Only one driver, if any, will be needed to oversee the automated fleet. The trucks will behave much like a train but with more flexibility. After all, trucks will not be physically coupled, nor will they be tied down to tracks.
This potential future has many implications. How many truck drivers will lose their jobs to automation? How safe is wireless electricity? Will there be a national standardization of platooning and automation regulations, or will they differ between states? Will these truck technologies outcompete rail? Questions like these must be considered as we move toward a future characterized by electrified, platooned and automated trucks.
Josiah Blackwell-Lipkind is a US based transportation consultant at CPCS, a global infrastructure management consulting firm specializing in transport, power and public-private partnerships.