By R. Bruce Striegler

By July of this year, the world’s first passenger drone aircraft will be transporting individuals over Dubai. Chinese-based Ehang unveiled the world’s first self-flying, electric aircraft prototype, or more accurately, passenger drone, at the 2016 Las Vegas’ Consumer Electronics Show. The drone can carry one passenger, weighing up to 100 kilograms, and can stay airborne for 30 minutes on one charge, and fly at a maximum speed of 100 kph. Although Ehang claims it can reach altitudes of 3,500 metres, the vehicle flies quite low, between 300 to 500 metres. The passenger uses a touchscreen to select a destination, and the drone is then “auto-piloted” by a command center.

The implementation of a passenger-carrying, computer-controlled drone is far from the only radical development in the transportation world. During the last year alone, a self-driving truck has completed a commercial beer run in the U.S., two automotive giants have spun out new divisions focused on “smart mobility,” and one of the world’s biggest car companies unveiled a new electric vehicle amid Tesla-level intrigue. The transportation industry is experiencing upheaval not unlike that seen in the days of Henry Ford’s first mass-market family cars. While transportation technology is creating major upheavals for passenger vehicles, advances in the industrial arena are forcing companies to adjust their thinking and practices.

Driverless vehicles about to change the freight industry

As changes in manufacturing continue to accelerate, which include automation, digital technology and robotics, so too are changes taking place in transportation. Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) are injecting more discipline into the management of truck fleets. Dispatching and routing software, coupled with onboard computers, also help improve fleet utilization. Industry experts are predicting an increased move to a highly consumer-centric culture, which will force carriers to improve speed to market (from days to hours). This will likely put pressure on trucking companies to better integrate their small parcel and less than load (LTL) operations so the right products arrive, together, at the right place at the right time. Drones will perform the delivery of very small shipments, and autonomous vehicles will replace conventional delivery vans and light trucks.

Driverless vehicles will change the nature of the freight industry. Challenges to find qualified drivers, hours of service regulations and the fact that drivers can represent one third of the cost of moving a truck will make the economics of moving freight in driverless vehicles compelling. Watch for platoons of driverless vehicles performing long haul trucking; live drivers will be required in last mile delivery fleets (augmented cartage and drayage fleets) to perform the local deliveries and assist shippers in unloading freight and obtaining signatures, when required.

Platooning, an old technique harnessed by new technology

In California, Peloton Technology is leading the way with vehicle-to-vehicle communication to tackle two of the trucking industry’s largest problems, fuel and safety. By using radar sensors, intelligent braking systems, video screens, and wireless communications, Peloton makes it possible for two trucks to connect in a “platoon,” or “closer together than would normally be safe“. The two trucks are able to get as close as 20 feet from each other while platooning, to take advantage of fuel-saving aerodynamics. Peloton reports fuel savings of 10 per cent for the second truck and 4.5 per cent for the lead truck in a platoon. The trucks are able to get this close thanks to Peloton’s active safety system which wirelessly links the trucks. The wireless links control the truck’s acceleration and braking, while radar detects potential dangers ahead. The linked trucks react within a “fraction of a second” whereas a truck driver needs up to two seconds to react to changes in conditions. While the wireless link controls acceleration and braking, drivers still have complete control of the truck. Even while trucks aren’t platooning, Peloton is making trucking safer through the use of video screens in cabs to monitor blind spots.

In March of this year, Volvo Trucks announced a successful demonstration of truck platooning in California. “Volvo Trucks and Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) at the University of California, Berkeley, recently completed a successful demonstration of partially automated truck platooning, made possible by Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control technology (CACC).” Volvo says three VNL 670 model tractors hauled cargo containers at the Los Angeles Port complex and along Interstate 110, highlighting for public officials and other stakeholders the technology’s potential for improving highway safety, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing the capacity of transportation systems. The Volvo tractors traveled at speeds of 55 miles per hour while maintaining a 50 feet separation. Forward-looking sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communications helped maintain speed and spacing without driver intervention. Staged and unplanned vehicle cut-ins demonstrated how the technology handles common traffic situations.

CACC technology is an enhancement to the current Adaptive Cruise Control technology that enables closer and more accurate control of the space between trucks with increased safety. The advanced technology, which makes platooning possible, is meant to serve as an aid, not a replacement for professional truck drivers. Benefits of platooning through CACC include faster responses to hard braking while maintaining safety, superior longitudinal control while following in a lane, reduced emissions, and improved traffic flow. Volvo has also demonstrated a fully autonomous truck working in an underground mining operation. The test took place last September at the Boliden mine in Kristineberg, Sweden. Out of concern for safety, Volvo has no current plans to field its autonomous trucks on public roads, limiting them instead to private locations such as mines and ports. A Volvo spokesperson notes that, “On public roads, we’ll use the technology to support the driver, not to replace the driver.”

Nikola Motors adds a hydrogen powered semi to the mix

While manufacturers are still trying to figure out how to give electric vehicles a range of more than 250 miles, Salt Lake City-based Nikola Motors has dropped an entirely new approach into the mix. The company’s futuristic Nikola One is a truck that is a concept study of an electric semi equipped with a large lithium-ion battery pack and a hydrogen fuel cell. The vehicle’s hydrogen fuel cell feeds a set of high-density 320-kWh lithium batteries that power the fully electric drivetrain. The vehicle, which Nikola Motor Company believes will mark “the end of diesel engines” is reported to have an output of 735 kW or 1,000 hp. Its range is said to be around 1,500 kilometers, and refueling would take 15 minutes.

In published reports, Nikola founder and CEO Trevor Milton is quoted, saying, “Nikola will build a world-class advanced manufacturing facility, which will create thousands of new jobs.” Where the factory will be built will reportedly be announced in the first half of 2017. Sales as well as repair and maintenance services are said to remain with business partner Ryder System, which boasts more than 800 service locations across North America.

Milton is convinced that “our lithium battery packs, which should be available next year, are more energy-dense and weigh less than any vehicle production pack in the world. To give you an idea, we believe our pack could propel a BMW i3 over 400 miles on a single charge and still fit within the i3 chassis.” Milton says that Nikola would set up 300 hydrogen filling stations from 2018 in the United States and Canada, creating the largest hydrogen network in the world.

The battery pack of 32,000 individual cells will drive an 800-volt AC engine. The concept vehicle had six electric motors, one powering each axle. Because peak torque is reached the instant a foot touches the throttle, the Nikola One can shoot to 60 miles an hour in 30 seconds, compared to 60 seconds for a traditional diesel rig. Nikola claims the truck will come with one or two full-sized beds, a 40-inch curved 4K TV with Apple TV, Wi-Fi and 4G LTE connectivity, as well as a full-size refrigerator, freezer and microwave. By replacing the diesel engine, drivers have better visibility, sitting further forward and able to view the road through a panoramic glass windscreen. There are assorted high-definition cameras, radar and sonar which produce real-time aerial views of the truck and trailer, making blind spots a thing of the past.

The industry and industry media remain divided as to whether or not Nikola’s highly ambitious plan can be carried out. Some observers note that it may take a decade or longer to roll out all 350-plus planned hydrogen stations, and building a factory that can produce the planned 50,000 units per year will require a massive investment. Added to that, it’s worth remembering that Tesla has been working on its game-changing cars since 2003, and sales of its electric vehicles remain unprofitable.

A self-driving technology company becomes a trucker

Otto Motors, an American self-driving technology company, started by Google engineers and executives in 2016, was acquired last August by San Francisco-based Uber, at an estimated cost of US$680 million. Otto sees self-driving vehicles as the future – not only for ride-sharing, but also for long-haul trucks. Trucking is a $700-billion industry, in which a third of costs go to compensating drivers.

Otto started out with tools to help truck drivers perform their job with increased safety, but now it is working on technology that, in time, can automate parts of the drive on highways. The company’s vision is to find drivers resting comfortably in their cab bunks while the truck does the exit-to-exit highway driving. The truck’s radar, lasers, cameras and computers manage the highly sophisticated job of highway driving, controlling the truck’s acceleration, braking and steering. Instead of building its own trucks, Otto will focus on making conversion kits which can be installed relatively quickly on conventional trucks at service centers or factories.

Last October, an Otto-equipped truck made a beer run, carrying 51,744 cans of Budweiser on a shipment through Colorado. With “full support from the state of Colorado,” Otto said, the white-and-red truck traveled from Fort Collins down Interstate 25 to Colorado Springs “exit-to-exit without any human intervention.” Currently Otto has seven trucks on the road utilizing its technology, but it hopes owners of many more will eventually take on the equipment for free to test it out. The company is working to drive down the cost of the technology to the point where it offers a one- or two-year payback. That’s likely to mean a cost of about $30,000 for a retrofit.

In September 2016, Daimler Trucks showed off its all-electric truck in Hannover, Germany at a tradeshow for commercial vehicles. The electric Urban eTruck, will be branded as a Mercedes-Benz and is designed to serve as a heavy-duty distribution transport with a range of about 125 miles. Targeted at the European market, it is scheduled for launch early in the next decade. The driver becomes a “transport manager,” who gets the truck onto the highway and merges into traffic. At 50 mph, he’s prompted to activate the “Highway Pilot” and relax.

The driver can pivot his seat 45 degrees away from the wheel, and doesn’t need to check Google Maps, since the truck has a navigation system to independently find the best route. If the truck approaches construction, or it’s time to get off the highway, it flashes a visual alert to tell the driver to get his hands back on the wheel. While the technology to allow autonomous driving is in place, Mercedes has to sort out questions like how to ensure data from the vehicles is secure, how liability will work in the event of a crash, and if rules regulating how much rest truck drivers get will still apply.

Industry watching truck development competition between U.S. and Europe

It is difficult to assess the total number of companies working on autonomous vehicles, but research for this article has identified up to 33 corporations around the world who have made significant investment in the field. In the heavy or delivery truck arena, industry experts have defined the competition between Europe and the U.S. as the field to watch. Many in Europe worry that the U.S. retains a number of advantages — a giant market and fewer regulations. Although opinions are split as to which region has the edge, there is agreement that the technology that promises to revolutionize commerce is intensifying. And as that push accelerates, it has even evolved in some cases to cooperation among potential rivals. Volvo owns the Mack brand in the U.S., but has its wheels rooted in both continents. In 2013, Volvo Group’s venture capital arm opened an office in San Francisco, and Volvo has partnered with Otto Motors.

While much of the public has been attracted by stories about driverless cars, analysts and economists believe the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles will be much swifter in the heavy-trucking market. IHS Automotive analyst’s estimate that annual sales of autonomous heavy-duty trucks could reach 600,000 units annually by 2035, beginning with several thousand deployed in 2020. In a study released last summer, McKinsey & Company projected that by 2025, at least one of every three new heavy trucks will have high-level automation technology, which will be a big factor in the trucking industry seeing revenues increase 50 per cent over the next decade. Still, the number of self-driving heavy-duty trucks will be just a fraction of the 4.5 million autonomous cars expected to be on U.S. roads by 2035. In Europe, the Netherlands initiated a European Truck Platooning Challenge in 2016 with the goal to bring platooning a step closer to implementation. Six makers of automated trucks – DAF Trucks, Daimler Trucks, Iveco, MAN Truck and Bus, Scania and Volvo Group – have been platooning on public roads from several European cities to the Netherlands.

No article on technological advances in the commercial transport sector would be complete without referencing Amazon’s patent filing last December. Amazon is looking at storing products at altitude in huge floating airships — described by the company as “airborne fulfillment centers”, and a network of drones to essentially float items down to people.

The patent abstract says, “”Described is an airborne fulfillment centre and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver items from the fulfillment centre to users.” It goes on, noting that the “airships” would remain at a high level, 45,000 feet, while the unmanned delivery vehicles would be deployed downward to specific delivery addresses using little to no power. “Shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the airborne fulfillment center with inventory, supplies, and fuel. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC.”

What are governments in Canada doing to prepare for this technology?

Economists seem to take the relationship between innovation and higher living standards for granted, in part because they believe history justifies such a view. Industrialization has clearly led to enormous rises in incomes and living standards over the long run. Yet the road to riches is often rocky.

In December 2015, the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE) released a ‘white paper’, entitled Preparing for Autonomous Vehicles in Canada which contains 30 recommendations for the federal government. Quoted in a February 2017 story in the Financial Post, Barrie Kirk, co-founder and Executive Director of CAVCOE says, “Unfortunately, Canada is ‘late to the party.’ When I look at the G7 and the ways in which the G7 countries are getting ready for autonomous vehicles, Canada is dead last. There have been some really good things happening in Canada recently, both federally and within Ontario, but we still have a long, long way to go to catch up and to be competitive.” Kirk points out the U.K. put 100 million pounds ($164 million) towards research, development and testing of autonomous vehicles in 2015. Michigan, meanwhile, just passed some of the most permissive self-driving laws in the world.

The recommendations suggested by the organization include appointment of a federal Minister for autonomous vehicles (AV) who would have a voice in Cabinet to champion and coordinate the sector across all of the Federal Government; appoint a senior-level working group to coordinate AV activities across all relevant federal departments and agencies; set the necessary federal standards and regulations for AV testing, manufacture and deployment, in coordination with the U.S.; work to prepare Canada and Canadians for the profound socio-economic benefits and challenges of AVs; to coordinate with the provinces, territories, municipalities and the United States, professional and trade organizations, and major stakeholders to ensure a rapid and smooth deployment of AVs.

The list of recommendations continues, advocating a significant investment in AV development, testing, and related activities in the auto and technology industries, universities and the National Research Council, starting with the 2016-17 budget; investing in Canadian auto and technology industries to help create an AV ecosystem that can compete in the global automated, connected and electric vehicle market; to consider the options for the oil industry, given the anticipated widespread adoption of AVs and the likely impact on the global demand for oil. Further, CAVCOE says the government should treat the potential national security threat that may be posed by hacking into AV’s operating systems as a priority, and proactively work to avoid or mitigate the opportunities for abuse by criminals and terrorists and require an analysis to assess the risks and opportunities that AVs pose to major transportation and infrastructure projects in order to determine how robust current forecast business and operational models might be.

A 2015 joint report by the Conference Board of Canada, CAVCOE and the Van Horne Institute showed that AVs will benefit the Canadian economy by $65 billion per year (3.6 percent of GDP). This includes savings from fewer collisions and reduced expenses for insurance, car repairs and health care. This estimate is much more conservative than the Morgan Stanley report which preceded it, and which estimated savings to the U.S. of $1.3 trillion per year (8 percent of GDP), and $5.6 trillion/year globally. The joint report is succinct, saying “Some will rightly point out that AVs are an unproven technology, and that no regulations, standards, codes of practice, or guidelines currently exist to assist with how to plan for this technology. It is therefore key that all parties involved in the concepts, planning, and design process are educated about AVs and their potential impacts and that work is started as soon as possible to develop the necessary guidance documents.”

In the broadest sense, technology extends our abilities to change the world, and we use technology to try to change the world to suit us better. But the results can often be complicated and unpredictable. They can include unexpected benefits, unexpected costs, and unexpected risks, any of which may fall on different social groups at different times. Anticipating the effects of technology is therefore as important as advancing its capabilities. Without government, industry and civil society cooperating and coordinating such massive change, the results are likely to be half-way measures and substantial confusion. To date, neither the Canadian federal government, and with the exception of Ontario, any of the provinces, have taken a leadership role to prepare for or to fully take advantage of the impending advent of autonomous vehicles on our streets and roads.

Ontario has so far attracted a total of just three participants to its year-old self-driving pilot project: the University of Waterloo, BlackBerry QNX and German motor-home manufacturer Erwin Hymer Group. General Motors of Canada Ltd., not part of the pilot project, said last year that it will hire up to 750 engineers to support the development of autonomous and connected vehicle technology in the province. Last year’s federal budget included $7.3 million over two years to develop regulations for “emerging technologies such as automated vehicles.”