Why self-driving trucks will help solve urban traffic problems (and maybe sooner than you think)

Wed, 2016-03-23 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

The three big trucks cruising down a German autobahn in tight formation earlier this week must have been a surprising sight for car drivers sharing the road with them.

Why? Because they were traveling roughly 50 feet apart from each other, far closer than most of us -- and transportation safety officials -- would usually think of as safe. That and while there were human drivers on board, the trucks were doing the driving. But the WiFi-connected trucks, from Council Lead Partner Daimler's Highway Pilot Connect project, were in constant communication with each other.

Benefits for traffic, businesses and cities
The trucks weren't driving in tight formation simply because they could. The benefits, Daimler says, are several. Traveling closely together, the trucks have less aerodynamic drag which cuts fuel costs by up to 7%. Less fuel equals fewer emissions. Also, the configuration reduces the space the trucks require on roadways by about half. Daimler also says the connected trucks will reduce traffic collisions because the trucks' reaction time is much faster than that of a human driver -- and the lead truck will send braking signals to the following trucks almost instantly.

There's a logistics angle to it too that also will offer several benefits, according to Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, the member of the management board for Daimler AG responsible for Daimler Trucks & Buses. "We are creating a new, highly efficient and open logistical network. We are connecting the truck with the Internet -- making it the mobile data center of the logistics network. It connects all those involved in goods: drivers, schedulers, fleet operators, workshops, manufacturers and insurance companies or authorities." Those capabilities also provide information in real time that was unavailable before: about the condition of the tractor and trailer, traffic and weather conditions, parking availability along the truck's route and more.

Daimler plans to introduce additional services and digital solutions over the next five years.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.