While self-navigating drones and land-based bots may have come to dominate the conversation over autonomous delivery vehicles, the sheer size of the increasingly global retail economy means that a preponderance of consumer goods is still shipped by good, old-fashioned freight. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 13.9 billion tons of goods made their way across America’s highways in the beds of 18-wheelers in 2013. Rail-based transport — the second-highest mode — totaled just 1.8 billion in the same year, and by 2040, truck-based shipping will rise to 18.7 billion tons per year.
Yes, solving the last mile might matter for direct-to-consumer merchants, but solving every other inch of an increasingly globalized retail supply chain matters for everybody else.
There’s good news on that multi-axled front, though — even if it does come from Europe.
The European Truck Platooning Challenge (ETPC) wrapped up on Wednesday (April 6), where several carrier trucks rolled into a shipping facility in Rotterdam, Netherlands. On any other day, the arrival of a handful of 18-wheelers into a port city like Rotterdam wouldn’t have been worth anyone’s notice, but hundreds of people were on hand to cheer the simultaneous arrival of the vehicles that had departed from six different origin cities scattered around Western Europe.
Why? Because for most of their highway-based journeys, these massively laden carrier trucks drove themselves.
Though the trucks participating in the challenge were provided by different manufacturers, all were outfitted with radar and GPS sensors and Wi-Fi hubs that allowed them to link up and convoy together in a process known in the trucking industry as “platooning.” It’s been in practice long before the rise of the first computer as a way to save fuel; by forming into tightly organized columns, multiple trucks can reduce air drag and increase fuel efficiency without reducing speed and throwing off scheduled arrival times. The closer trucks can drive together, the lower the wind resistance, but there’s an obvious limit to how close a human driver will get to the back of a fellow carrier truck and a resultant limit on how efficient platooning with human drivers can be.
Though human drivers were behind the wheel during ETPC’s first road test, it was the Wi-Fi-tethered trucks that did most of the work. Volkswagen-owned Scania, one of the freight companies involved in the test, released a video detailing how the lead truck in the columns essentially transmit driving instructions in real time to however many other vehicles that are lined up behind it. When it speeds up, so do they; when it brakes, the trailing trucks aren’t caught off guard because their speeds are instantaneously adjusted, too.
Dollars to donuts, though, is linking trucks by Wi-Fi even that much of an improvement over careful human drivers attempting to drive in the same platoon formations? Research from Netherlands-based firm TNO says yes. Fuel efficiency can increase up to 15 percent, and a single pair of trucks clocking 100,000 miles in a year can save about $7,000 annually. When convoys consist of several or even dozens of trucks linked together, imagine the savings then.
As if the technology wasn’t impressive enough, the scale of the ETPC test should be, too. Six separate convoys of trucks embarked on their Rotterdam-based journeys from starting points in three countries (Sweden, Germany and Belgium), and Scania’s platoon traversed more than 1,200 miles to get there. The autonomous features of the trucks were only enabled when road conditions were deemed normal enough to allow for relatively constant speeds and steering, but Dirk-Jan de Bruijn, program director of the ETPC pilot, told Quartz that the results are strong enough to warrant a big step forward in efficient carrier shipping.
“We now have huge energy in the network, and the idea is that we will go to real-life cases,” de Bruijn said. “Companies like Unilever are planning to start these cases in 2017.”
While last-mile delivery solutions might draw more press coverage and capture the lion’s share of consumers’ imaginations, a world where increasingly expansive supply chains still wholly rely on 18-wheeled transport desperately needs more innovations like Wi-Fi platooning.
Otherwise, it won’t matter how fast a self-navigating drone can drop packages onto lawns if it still costs billions to get cargo to fulfillment centers in the first place.