How Self-Driving Vehicles Could Take Root in Indiana

Xconomy Indiana — 

Imagine a tractor-trailer without anyone at the wheel that has driven across three states. It exits the interstate and drops its trailer at a truck yard.

Soon, another truck—this one driven by a human—hooks to the trailer and hauls it to a factory in a nearby city. This is the future of trucking—if systems engineer Jamie Bass has his way.

“Automated semis will have 24/7/365 operation. Cross-country deliveries that used to take three to five days can now be done in 42 hours. Local truckers will have more business than they had before, and it will all be within 100 miles of their homes so they can be at home with their families at night,” said Bass, CEO of Evansville, IN-based Gravicom, a security and engineering firm.

Such dreams of autonomous trucks, in the era of the Google car and related efforts, may evolve into reality in such transportation-intensive states as Indiana. Here, small firms, municipal efforts, and big companies such as Delphi Automotive are starting to lead the development of autonomous technology. Now some see business applications of automated vehicle fleets—not private passenger cars—as driving early adoption.

The possibilities are evident in a proposal the city of Indianapolis recently filed in hopes of lassoing a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge” competition. The program, which garnered proposals from 77 mid-sized cities, aims to demonstrate technology that eases the burden on aging and increasingly congested transportation infrastructure. USDOT will announce five finalist cities on March 12. The winner will be selected in June.

Those involved in the Indianapolis proposal say it contains a variety of ideas, including partially or fully autonomous bus rapid transit vehicles. It also contemplates a rollout of autonomous shuttle buses at Indianapolis International Airport.

And a third idea is to make autonomous some of the cars in BlueIndy, the nation’s largest all-electric car sharing program. It is intelligent transportation programs like this, along with engineering expertise such as Delphi’s Kokomo technology center an hour north of Indianapolis, that has central Indiana leaders optimistic.

Delphi’s Kokomo unit is already the lead design center for the company’s radar and vision sensors used in automated vehicles, such as an Audi that drove itself coast-to-coast in a demonstration last year. The Indiana facility is responsible for the development, construction, integration, and testing of computing systems, power systems, and human-machine interface systems for automated vehicles, said Delphi spokeswoman Carrie Wright.

“We began talking with Delphi two years ago about what would be possible for autonomous electric vehicles in Indiana,” said Paul Mitchell, CEO of Indiana’s Energy Systems Network, a consortium of industry, academia, and government that was involved in the Smart City grant proposal.

ESN, whose partners include companies such as Cummins and Toshiba, piloted the mass deployment of electric vehicles and charging stations in Indianapolis. It also led the North American pilot project to test communications standards for Toyota’s Prius plug-in model.

“My sense is that the electrification phenomenon and automated transit are two sides of the same coin,” Mitchell added. “Together they complement each other by creating tremendous improvements in efficiencies.”

A car demonstration project is one thing, but the days of 80,000 pound semi-trucks barreling down the road with no one at the wheel is quite another.

Public acceptance issues, not to mention legal and regulatory hurdles, won’t be easy to overcome, concedes Bass, who has proposed an autonomous-truck concept and system (see AutoTruckBot.com).

He said for such a system to ever be implemented, it will require a consortium of players—from freight distributors to retailers to legislators to technology firms. Bass said he has made presentations to business leaders who agree “it’s a great idea.” But, so far, he has not been able to lasso investors for the project. “This is a moonshot for the transportation industry because of the complexity,” said Bass.

Still, the technology to keep a big rig between the lines isn’t as far off as one might think.

Last year, Freightliner parent Daimler began testing what it calls the world’s first autonomous truck on public roads. The state of Nevada granted a special road license for the truck sporting a front radar, a stereo camera, and adaptive cruise control.

It isn’t fully autonomous, however, as a driver remains in the cab during operation. Indeed, as in cars, the first use of the technology likely is more practical as a driver aid that takes away some of the mundane work for the driver and provides an extra margin of safety, such as during a heavy rain storm.

“The technology is there today to incorporate autonomous [technology]. It’s really about the level of transportation you’re pursuing,” ESN’s Mitchell said.

If and when fully autonomous semis hit the road, the benefits could be profound, Bass preaches. Besides helping trucking firms overcome a perennial shortage of drivers, automated trucks could run more frequently, he said. As such, a whole new tier of competitive pricing options could be introduced based on time of delivery. “One huge benefit of autonomous semi-trucks is to bring near-perfect predictability to the over-the-road shipping industry,” Bass said.

And potentially, with more trucks on the road, it might then become more cost-effective to mass-deploy a hydrogen fueling station infrastructure powering the trucks and a new fleet of private passenger hydrogen-fueled vehicles, added Bass.

Whatever vehicle segment sees automation first, there are clearly demographic trends favoring its use. Mitchell pointed to the wave of Baby Boomers retiring who will have mobility challenges that autonomous vehicles could solve. On the other end of the spectrum, the millennial generation isn’t as enthusiastic about driving as their elders and seems open to new technologies.

“We are absolutely discussing the possibilities of autonomous driving for over-the-road vehicles,” Mitchell said. “It’s definitely an area that’s ripe for development.”