As we enter into the era of the self-driving truck, OEMs have few precedents to fall back on. When the shipping industry first started using combustion engines instead of horses, there were no hybrids; no one attached a horse to a car with a motor. A vehicle was either horse-driven or it was not. But such clear-cut distinctions are not made in today’s market.
As we progress through the levels of automation, the shift towards self-driving trucks will be gradual. This means that equipment manufacturers must figure out how to prepare for a future that is still rapidly evolving. Fleet owners will not want to keep traditional trucks on the road until self-driving technology is fully fledged, as this will waste time and make them less competitive. At the same time, building trucks right now that have autonomous features that cannot be legally used yet is a waste of resources.
Luckily, these are not the only two options. Trucks, including legacy vehicles, have the ability to be retrofitted with hardware that can be re-programmed with self-driving software as and when it becomes available. That is exactly what Tesla is doing – adding cameras, sensors, and other controls to its latest vehicle models so that new functions can be deployed as soon as the right software is developed. The company will simply send secure OTA software updates to activate these features. Using Over-The-Air (OTA) software updates, commercial vehicles can gradually become more efficient, safer and more autonomous.
Why Retrofitting Commercial Vehicles Makes Financial Sense
In October 2016, Uber announced its first delivery via a self-driving truck. The tractor-trailer, carrying a cargo of beer, drove 120 miles on its own. This event marked a milestone in the shipping industry. Now scrambling to catch up, every truck manufacturer and shipping company is preparing for laws to change and autonomous technology to take off.
While the urgency of adapting to this new shift is understandable, building an entirely new fleet from scratch is not feasible for many companies. Tractor trailers cost up to $175,000 to manufacture, with $125,000 of that spent on the tractor alone. It will also take years for some of the autonomous models currently in development to become widely available. Even Daimler, whose Freightliner is setting the standard for self-driving trucks, does not think the model will really start penetrating the market until 2025. In other words, building an autonomous fleet from the ground up will require a massive amount of time and resources.
This is where retrofitting comes in. Led by Otto, the company that retrofitted trucks for Uber’s historic beer run, a full tractor-trailer can now be retrofitted for $30,000, turning a normal vehicle into a smart, connected, and semi-autonomous vehicle. The successful completion of the European Truck Platooning Challenge by a convoy of autonomous trucks traveling across Europe in 2016 set an example of how this transition can reduce traffic congestion, driver fatigue, number of accidents, and the consumption of fuel. With Otto’s retrofit, a truck can perform several basic functions on its own, including:
- Staying in one lane
- Slowing down
- Maintaining a specified speed
These functions are still limited. The truck cannot pass other vehicles, for instance, as it cannot change lanes on its own. Instead, it might travel with the speed of the car in front of it, maintaining roughly the same velocity. Despite requiring human intervention, this technology is a huge leap forward. The fact that it can be applied to pre-existing vehicles is an incentive to shipping companies. Despite a relatively low upfront cost, it represents a way to save enormous amounts of money by reducing labor costs and lowering delivery times. Self-driving trucks do not have to stop, and will not make wrong turns.
Retrofitting Allows Continuous Software Updates
The need for human intervention and the limitations of the Otto retrofit do not mark the ceiling of retrofitted technology, but the floor. Once the right hardware is installed, each vehicle can be continuously improved.
OEMs and fleet owners/operators can install self-driving hardware onto legacy vehicles for a low cost now. When new technology arrives (possibly within the next decade), the hardware to enable the new software technology will already be in place. With Tesla’s model, trucks can be equipped with cameras, sensors, and also with the ability of each vehicle to communicate with other trucks and with the highway infrastructure itself. It will then be just a matter of using the OTA platform, made secure by industry-best cybersecurity standards, to update new features.
By retrofitting existing models with the right hardware, and through partnerships with companies that can enable the hardware to host new software technology through secure OTA software updates, the commercial trucking industry can be ready for whatever is around the next bend in the road.
As the auto industry is changed by technological and economic currents, OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers will need to partner with technological specialists to thrive in the era of the software defined car. Movimento’s expertise is rooted in our background as an automotive company. This has allowed us to create the technological platform that underpins the future of the software driven and self-driven car. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can work together.