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Publications | January 14, 2015
5 minute read

Trucking, Mining Industries Blazing a Path to Vehicle Autonomy

Recent published studies suggest that over 80 percent of all automotive vehicles will incorporate some form of connected technology, such as infotainment systems, by 2020 and over 50 percent of all vehicles will have at least one type of automated drive technology, such as lane departure warnings.

While news articles touting Google’s autonomous vehicle technology are widespread, a less publicized fact is that the non-automotive vehicle industry is blazing a path of innovation in the advancement and implementation of groundbreaking autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies.

In today’s markets, where many OEMs are just now testing the capabilities of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles to operate in the public arena, the heavy duty trucking, construction and mining industries are actively using autonomous vehicle technology in daily operations. In fact, researchers expect the trucking industry will surpass the automotive industry in the integration of semi-autonomous and autonomous technology in road approved vehicles by 2020.

Construction and mining companies use autonomous vehicle technology to increase productivity, navigate hazardous environments, and to offset operating costs and a decline in commodity prices. Equipment manufacturers supporting these industries have embraced the autonomous technology model and are providing their customers with a variety of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous equipment to meet these challenges.

Not unlike the automotive industry, the primary goal of autonomous technology in mining equipment is to promote resource and infrastructure efficiency while improving human safety factors. Industry leaders such as Caterpillar Mining Systems, Komatsu Ltd. and Autonomous Solutions, Inc. currently integrate vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and interconnectivity with GPS and mapping systems into excavating and hauling mining vehicles. The technology allows vehicles to be directed to discrete locations and, more importantly, sense and avoid the location of other vehicles, people and obstacles without human intervention.

Caterpillar, Komatsu, ASI and other autonomous equipment manufacturers actively protect their technological advancements through a strategy of worldwide patent filings and public technical disclosures. To date, at least 200 distinct patent families covering a variety of autonomous mining technology are pending worldwide. An ancillary benefit of creating and maintaining these portfolios is that the patents may also cover automotive vehicle autonomous technology, thereby creating a non-traditional, potential secondary revenue stream for the manufacturers.

An overlap of technology and competitors in the automotive segment can be seen on worldwide patent registers. Google owns over 80 published U.S. patent applications and patents relating to autonomous vehicle technology. The majority of Google’s patent portfolio focuses on the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration’s automation level 4, which contemplates technology that allows full control of a vehicle without driver input. Mining equipment manufacturers and Google have a lead position in the intellectual property arena for fully autonomous vehicle technology and, as a result, will have the greatest potential to affect future implementation of this technology.

While published and patented intellectual property rights give us a view of what may come in the fully autonomous vehicle technology space, real-world implementation of fully autonomous vehicle technology remains limited by a lack of legislative action. Federal and state transportation regulations have yet to be codified to allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate on our roads. For that matter, no country has enacted autonomous vehicle operating regulations, despite the fact that semi-autonomous vehicle technology has shown great promise, especially in the heavy duty trucking industry.

A significant amount of semi-autonomous vehicle research and development is occurring across Europe. Some of the most prominent manufacturers—including Daimler, Volvo and Scania—have brought semi-autonomous features to their heavy duty trucking products and continue to push the boundaries for implementation of this technology in future vehicles. A recent search of worldwide patent records revealed that the heavy duty trucking industry, in many respects, may be outpacing the automotive industry in the development and protection of semi-autonomous technology.

The current implementation of semi-autonomous technology contemplates that the truck is operated by a human for city routes and deliveries. Semi-autonomous technology is engaged for highway travel and use of safety systems such as driver collision warning systems. It is expected that through use of this semi-autonomous technology, trucking industry costs may be brought into close competition with rail transportation costs within 10 years.

One of the biggest challenges facing the trucking industry is retention of drivers. Studies indicate that the driver attrition rate within one year of employment is about 98 percent. The failure to retain drivers generally results from driver fatigue associated with typically long routes, high fuel prices and the cost of operating trucks.

Daimler’s Future 2025 Truck initiative, and the related patented technology, contemplates expected future road congestion, lack of funding for future road infrastructure needs and that over 75 percent of all goods will be shipped through Europe via trucks. The Daimler initiative utilizes V2V, V2I and mapping technologies to provide solutions for these future challenges.

Scania’s patented platooning autonomous vehicle technology is a convoy, or road train, of trucks that drive long stretches of highways. Each truck incorporates V2V technology that allows the trucks to travel at closer distances than possible with human drivers at the wheel. By reducing human interaction and error, platooning has increased fuel efficiency by as much as 15 percent, reduced air emissions, lowered truck operating costs and improved overall safety.

While the future of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles remains subject to the creation, enactment and use of federal and state transportation regulations, it is clear that the non-automotive vehicle industries are aggressively seeking solutions to core business issues through autonomous vehicle technology. Those efforts may ultimately result in non-automotive industries revolutionizing the traditional automotive technology game.