Robots, robots everywhere ... and on trucks too, methinks …

Dec. 18, 2015
A look at what types of vehicles are being equipped with self-driving technology.

It’s amazing – and not a little bit frightening – to see how rapidly the concept of self-driving equipment is taking hold in this country.

OK, I’ll admit it; I don’t like the concept of machines driving themselves around (much less with me in them).

Yet my reservations aside, there are some pretty good business cases being developed for the automation of everything from forklifts to tractor-trailers.

For example, look at this recent project undertaken by United Rentals and 5D Robotics, to automated scissor lifts – helping prevent collisions, enables multiple vehicles to follow a person or lead vehicle (a protocol known as “wagon-training”) while allowing human operators to quickly and easily create and modify autonomous paths throughout a facility.

David Bruemmer, the co-founder and CEO of 5D Robotics, also believes his firm’s autonomous technology package is more accurate and reliable than similar self-driving systems based on GPS as 5D’s radio-guided package can function in rain, dust, snow and fog – something today’s GPS systems often have trouble with.

From the perspective of Helge Jacobsen, VP of operational excellence at United Rentals, the big benefits of automation are improvements in both efficiency and safety.

“Seeing this reliable, safe, autonomous vehicle technology function in our rental yards has been an eye opener,” Jacobsen noted in a statement. “The equipment can move from station to station within the yard [and] provides new analytical and mapping tools to our own branches and eventually to our customers.”

Companies already using autonomous vehicles, such as in the mining industry, are also looking to achieve major costs savings by reducing the need for human drivers – folks that have been hard to find for many transportation functions of late.

Here’s Caterpillar’s take on that particular subject as it pertains to self-driving mining trucks:

Caterpillar isn’t the only heavy equipment maker in the autonomous vehicle game: others, such as Hitachi Corp., are hard at work on developing self-driving mining trucks too:

Komatsu America is another equipment maker deploying self-driving systems for mining trucks as well – autonomous systems it’s been working on since 1990, if you can believe it.

Of course, it’s self-driving commercial vehicles that fleets in the U.S. care about.

Daimler AG made a huge splash in that arena last year in Europe with the unveiling of its autonomous Mercedes Benz Future Truck 2025:

Freightliner Trucks – a division of Daimler Trucks North America – quickly followed with its Inspiration tractor, though the OEM takes pains to emphasize that this vehicle is designed to be semi-autonomous, meaning that it won’t replace a human driver. Instead, it’s designed give that driver more operating flexibility when behind the wheel.

Then there’s Peterbilt Motors Co., which is also far along in the development of self-driving systems as demonstrated below by Bill Kahn, the OEM’s principal engineer and manager of advanced concepts

It’s certainly interesting stuff, autonomous vehicle technology. But will it be widely accepted by us everyday humans? That’s the big question still in search of an answer at this point in time, I think.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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