Connect the future: Daimler delivery at its best

Daimler looks to the future of trucking, with a demonstration of connected trucks on an autobahn in Germany.

ANALYSIS, PMV

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 It’s not every day that a trucking event starts with a talk by a world-renowned futurist. But at Daimler’s Campus Connectivity event in Dusseldorf in March, Jeremy Rifkin laid out his vision for a changing world economic order. At the centre of this is his vision for a ‘Third Industrial Revolution’, where a convergence of renewable energy and communication technologies rapidly accelerates global productivity. Far from pie in the sky thinking, Daimler had flown Rifkin in from China, where he’s acting as an advisor to the Chinese government on economic transformation.

His talk was meanwhile peppered with anecdotes about the advice he gave to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she first came into office, and how that advice (including on the adoption of renewable energy) has been put into practice. Germany is now a global leader in the adoption of renewable energy technology, namely wind and solar.

Rifkin accepted Daimler’s offer to speak, he said, because he believed that the technology that they were announcing would contribute to this acceleration of economic productivity.

Daimler’s technology launch was delivered via a live video stream, beamed in from a helicopter circling three trucks driving on a nearby autobahn. With Mercedes-Benz having announced self-driving trucks in 2014, and shown live road trials last year in Germany and the US having received regulatory approval, it was hard to imagine what their newest technology would be. The answer was soon given: three self-driving trucks automatically positioning themselves into a platoon — a driving pattern with a truncated following distance of just 15m between each vehicle, rather than the mandatory 50m.

The advantages of a platoon formation include fuel savings of over 10% (averaged across the three vehicles) due to the reduced drag on the following vehicles — while the tighter formation ensures that the convoy takes up less space on the road.

Equipped with Highway Pilot, Daimler’s self-driving system of cameras and infrared sensors, and with all the trucks in constant communication via Wifi, they are able to act as one in response to road conditions. If the first truck brakes, the following trucks also brake, and the reaction time is one-tenth of a second — far quicker than a human driver.

A real life contingency was demonstrated on the live feed: a passenger car (a Mercedes-Benz driven by a professional driver) muscled its way into the small gap in a bid to take an autobahn exit. The trucks in the platoon automatically increased the following distance and the platoon spaced out; once the interloper was out of the way it reformed.

Rifkin has often painted a big picture of the future of the world’s economy, and Daimler too wants to present its own vision about the future of trucking, and it isn’t devoted to innovations in ‘hardware’, like chassis strength or engine efficiency. Instead, software, on-board sensors and remote data centres all have important roles to play.

“Connected trucks will have a huge impact. They will transform transportation completely,” said Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, the Daimler AG board of management member responsible for Daimler Trucks and Buses. “And I promise: When we look back in 10 years, we’ll recognise: this was the turning point. The moment when it all started.”

Beyond the fuel efficiency gains of platooning, Daimler has a larger vision, of a future where packs of freight trucks in self-driving mode roam across Europe, North America and the rest of the world. Single driving trucks would be able to detect a platoon and join. Drivers would be required only to take control of the vehicle during certain driving conditions, leaving them free to perform office administration tasks or catch up with family members, no doubt making the occupation of a truck driver more appealing.

Meanwhile, connected and self-driving trucks mean optimum scheduling of goods, better fuel economy, and communication across the network about driving conditions, whether unsafe weather or traffic jams.

At Daimler’s Campus Connectivity event, numerous other technologies were shown, including: solutions for reporting vehicle loads — to allow a freight company to pick up additional load and prevent half-loads trips; real-time data delivery to the consigner to allow them to track their goods; and real-time monitoring of fault codes by a diagnostic centre and the relaying of service information — which at times might allow a driver to make simple repairs on the road without returning to the workshop (the service is already offered in North America and is proving popular).

Topographical data can meanwhile be used to predictively manage the powertrain and optimise gear selection, and the selection of a route leading through tough terrain could result in extra torque being digitally activated (an advance on Mercedes-Benz’s Top Torque option, also already available in some markets).

Driving the focus on transport efficiency is the expectation that global road freight will triple by 2050, says Bernhard. But at the same time, there’s no expectation that the capacity of the road network will also triple in that time, at least not in developed markets.

That means that transport operators will need to eke out more efficiency from their fleet, a solution that would likely result in better profitability for the sector. The ultimate (if distant) goal is for fleets of trucks to operate for 24 hours a day — but progress even close to this would mark a dramatic improvement on the present day reality. According to Daimler’s research, trucks in Europe spend on average just a third of the time driving; the rest is spent loading or unloading, waiting at cargo terminal or customs and idling in traffic jams.

Strict regulations on daily-drive time of course require trucks to spend time parked up while drivers rest — but this fleet inefficiency is compounded when trucks are not fully loaded, or return empty from a delivery.

Bernhard has been responsible for Daimler’s truck and bus division since 2013. Formerly the CEO of Mercedes-AMG, his attention is now focused on the many problems of the trucking world. He believes that many of these can be solved by having information about a vehicle’s status available in real time, and having the truck connected to its stakeholders in the industry. Sending freight papers digitally to the drop-off point, such as a cargo terminal, for example, can speed up a delivery — with the truck guided to the correct delivery bay. Or in the case of maintenance, the service workshop can receive in advance a digital notification of the required works, pre-order parts and get the truck back on the road quicker. Real-time information about current cargo load meanwhile opens up the door to on-demand trucking services, allowing drivers to pick up extra loads, in the so-called ‘Uberisation of Trucking’.

Connectivity creates a whole new universe of applications, he believes. “The examples are manifold, but the pattern is the same. Without the connected truck, information flows within the logistics network were sketchy and fragmented. With the connected truck, the main data node is established: The connected truck provides real-time information to all participants in the logistics network. It links the isolated nodes of the network. And even more: The connected truck turns the logistics network into an information power grid.”

Daimler is putting its money where its mouth is, having announced an investment of more than half a billion dollars as part of its focus on connected vehicles, as well as a new Digital Solutions & Services unit which will integrate all its activities relating to the connected Mercedes-Benz truck.

As with any new technology in the PMV sector, it’s worth considering where the return on investment dynamics make it most likely to be implemented. North America is the obvious candidate, in part because very large truck fleets (some companies own more than 10,000 vehicles, the very largest more than 100,000) mean that small incremental savings through better fuel efficiency, fleet performance or uptime can translate into large annual savings.

In the US, Daimler has acquired a minority equity stake in Zonar, a tech firm that earlier collaborated on Daimler’s Virtual Technician, a diagnostic platform to identify whether faults need workshop attention or if they can be attended to by the driver without needing to cancel the run. Daimler’s FleetBoard data system also has over 180,000 customers.

But while Daimler believes it’s the most advanced of the truck makers when it comes to self-driving and connectivity, it isn’t the only one investing in the field. Platoons of trucks from six different OEMs, including Scania, MAN, Volvo, Iveco and DAF Trucks, as well as Daimler, recently drove across Europe.

An unresolved issue is whether mixed-fleet trucks will be workable. For its part, Daimler says that its protocol will be open, allowing other truck makers to adopt it. Arguably the biggest obstacle, however, is the regulatory one — whether platooning self-driving trucks will be accepted from the public safety perspective.

There’s been some progress made to date, allowing self-driving trucks in certain areas and certain conditions, but automakers are lobbying intensely to allow wider usage. Nevertheless, as automation of passenger cars advances, it seems likely that the public will be receptive to the idea. Meanwhile, the efficiency benefits of self-driving truck platoons, including tighter road footprints, suggest that the logic will win over businesses and government alike. It seems that the future for the connected truck looks bright.

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