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October 24, 2016   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

In the Race for Autonomous Vehicles, Construction and Farm Equipment Are In the Lead

In the race for autonomous technology, off-road equipment has just passed the finish line while commercial trucks are not far behind.

Who’s driving that tractor? No one! Not a day goes by without some mention of driverless vehicles in the news. The technology, while helping us get closer to the George Jetson-future, promises to save fuel, promote road safety, eliminate traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While we may be earnestly waiting for these breakthroughs in our next car, it is surprising to learn that many aspects of autonomous technology have been used on jobsites and farms for several years. The foundation for powering these vehicles and equipment is the newest generation of clean diesel engines that couple near-zero emissions with fuel savings technology. 

Complete autonomous equipment - that is, equipment without an operator behind a wheel - has been hard at work in large mines across the globe in the very largest surface mine “haul” trucks and loaders for several years. For example, trucks can be pre-programmed to move between specific distances at specific speeds 24/7. Loaders and excavators can perform precise work tasks such as grading or material movement with fewer cycles and less time. Also because mining and construction sites are inherently dangerous, autonomous vehicles that remove the operator from the cab can greatly enhance worksite safety. Optimized for efficiency, these machines complete the work in less time than manned operations, achieving fuel savings – which means reducing C02 – and also frees up manpower for other functions thereby reducing labor costs, typically one of the largest cost-centers for, mines and construction sites. One manufacturer estimates autonomous technology can reduce total operations cost by 13 percent. 

Farm tractors and machines are also early adopters of various aspects of autonomous technology. The latest GPS and advanced radar technology allow farmers to pre-program equipment operations precisely to maximize equipment and fuel use while minimizing soil compaction and crop damage.  One of the newest prototypes unveiled recently from Case IH is a fully autonomous tractor. Without an operator, no cab is needed which eliminates weight and contributes to fuel savings and greenhouse gas reduction.

Semi-autonomous technology has been available in commercial trucks for some time. Adaptive or predictive cruise control that helps maximize fuel consumption by taking over the braking, coasting and accelerating decisions from the driver.  Systems use radar to warn of lane departures and merging hazards today.  Working together, these technologies will continue to evolve to advance fuel economy benefits.

European truck manufacturers are set to begin testing truck platooning in Europe. In platooning, semi-autonomous technology takes over driving speed and braking to for the specific purpose of maintaining a small distance between multiple trucks that maximizes fuel economy and reduces C02 emissions. Much like race cars try to take advantage of drafting conditions, semi-autonomous truck platooning technology allows a fleet of trucks to maintain a minimum distance to maximize fuel economy. Such conditions could not be maintained safely without this technology. The platooning test hopes to demonstrate a CO2 reduction of 10 percent.

It’s hard to imagine vehicles and machines without an operator behind the controls, but thanks to the advancements in technology, increasing elements of autonomous operation are happening today. Off-road heavy equipment isn’t getting the popular media attention of Google’s self-driving cars, but this sector is further along in implementation with commercial trucks not far behind. What’s powering these driverless commercial vehicles and equipment? The latest clean diesel engines that couple near-zero emissions with fuel savings technology. Someday soon, autonomous technology will further reduce the carbon footprint of truck and equipment operations while reducing operating and fuel costs for owners, promoting roadway and worksite safety and generating clean air benefits for all of us.


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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy

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