Leading up to the first public look at the Tesla Semi, which Elon Musk says will take place in September, Tesla is seeking permission from authorities in Nevada and California to test autonomous driving systems that would allow the trucks to travel in platoons on the highway.
Conceptually, platooning is no different than several subway cars being linked together to form a train, except there is no mechanical connection between them. A driver in the lead vehicle controls the direction and the pace. The rest of the vehicles simply follow the leader using a digital rather than a physical connection.
Reuters was the first to report on Tesla’s negotiations with the Nevada Department of Transportation. In an e-mail prior a June meeting, Tesla regulatory official Nasser Zamani wrote to Nevada DMV official April Sanborn, “To insure we are on the same page, our primary goal is the ability to operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the States of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle.”
Tesla declined to provide details of the meeting to Reuters or say when such tests would take place. No testing license has been issues yet, says the Nevada DOT. Meanwhile, California officials will meet with Tesla soon “to talk about Tesla’s efforts with autonomous trucks,” says Jessica Gonzalez, a spokesperson for that state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Advantages Of Platooning
Platooning of vehicles on interstate highways and other limited access roads avoids many of the thorniest issues associated with autonomous vehicles — pedestrians, bicyclists, intersections, and cross traffic.
It is also a significantly more efficient way of moving cargo. A human driver would only be needed in the lead vehicle. All the rest would be piloted by computers. Assuming a group of 5 trucks, that means 4 less people who need to be paid an hourly wage plus benefits.
Moving big trucks that have the aerodynamic characteristics of a barn door through the air requires lots of energy. Bunching them together nose to tail would significantly reduce drag for the group as compared to operating them separately.
In theory, trucks headed in the same general direction could be grouped together. If properly arranged in the queue, the last truck in line could simply detach itself at the highway exit closest to its destination, glide to a designated stopping point, and pickup a human driver to complete the last part of the journey.
Self driving trucks are also safer. Trucks are involved in more than 400,000 accidents each year, leading to about 4,000 fatalities. In almost every case, human error is to blame. “We think that self driving technologies can improve safety, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies of our shipments,” says James Sembrot, head of logistics for Anheuser-Busch.
A Growing Field Of Competitors
Tesla is not the only company experimenting with self driving trucks and platooning. Last year, Uber purchased startup company Otto, which specializes in autonomous truck technology. It put is prowess on display in Colorado by delivering a trailer full of Budweiser beer from the brewery to a remote distribution point while the human driver looked on.
Waymo, the autonomous driving division of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is also pushing forward with its plans to bring self driving trucks to reality. Another startup, Peloton, is also working on platooning software for long haul trucks.
Are Electric Trucks Feasible?
Everyone it curious to see who Tesla intends to make an electric truck that can haul 80,000 lb trailers more than a few miles, especially in mountainous areas. Lithium ion battery researcher Venkat Viswanathan of Carnegie Mellon University says electric long haul trucking is not economically feasible yet. “Your cargo essentially becomes the battery, he says.
Not to worry, Venkat. If Elon says the Tesla Semi will be presented in September, he and his team have figured out the answer to the dilemma.