Semi-Autonomous Retrofit Claiming Fleet Savings

Fuel economy is a strong selling point with vehicle automation systems, thinks Andrey Vavilin, co-founder and CEO at AV start-up BaseTracK.

With this presumption in mind, the developer undertakes early commercialization of its “hybrid navigation” self-driving technology. To hook logistic service providers, the company is claiming 20.38% savings obtained with a regular on-road truck retrofitted with a market-ready automation kit, rolled out this June. The measurement was obtained on a federal motorway with a professional driver at the steering wheel of a tractor and a semi-trailer, as compared to driving apple-to-apple without a retrofit module.

Instrument flight

BaseTracK is making one of the first practical use cases with navigation-based self-driving systems. Such solutions were trendy at the early stages of the current AV movement before they lost momentum after the vision-based systems started booming.

“In the last two years or so, we’ve certainly been seeing a new wave of interest to navigation technologies embedded in the self-driving mix,” says Vavilin. As described in detail in TU-Automotive’s January article, the technology in consideration is based on driving the vehicle along a ‘virtual rail’ or ‘basetrack’, a digital spatial route including pre-set parameters such as lane coordinates, recommended speed, traffic signs and more.

The system also uses dead reckoning to keep the vehicle on track when connection to satellites or navigational landmarks is lost, using an array of sensors, namely accelerometer, magnetometer and inertial navigation module. “Thus, we don’t depend on satellite navigation,” Vavilin says. It makes the system superior to camera-based and LiDAR-based solutions in adverse weather and poor visibility while also give advantage over GPS-based systems in urban canyons.

Efficiency

The fuel-saving potential of the retrofit system comes from the fact that basetracks include, besides navigational data, other parameters such as wind, traffic, road inclines or fuel-consumption coefficients. It allows for calculating optimum speed patterns, engine braking and more. “For instance, one truck would use different basetracks for transporting general goods and hazardous substances,” Vavilin explains. The claimed economy has not yet been verified by third-party tests. Nevertheless, Vavilin is confident about future demand because, with the current diesel fuel prices, annual economy per truck is approximated to reach 500,000 rubles ($7,000), justifying the cost of hardware and annual subscription in a course of three to six months.

It reminds the telematic providers’ early success story. “In the early 2000s, fuel theft was on the top 3 reasons for fleets’ decision to purchase telematic systems,” recalls Svetlana Khadonova, marketing director at telematics provider SpaceTeam. “With telematics, many fleets reduced expenses by 15% to 45% in just a month-time.”

It can be noticed that the BaseTracK system’s virtue is also a limitation. Mapping should be done before autonomous driving is possible. The current subscription includes 3,000 miles of the Russian largest motorways carrying two-thirds of the volume of national cargo traffic while consumers in the EU must wait until 2021. And the number of vehicle models in the subscription is limited to the most popular ones because basetracks are calculated specifically for each model.

“Decelerated” automation

Right now, fuel savings is one and only advantage of the technology because the first commercial release of the kit will be sold with muted functions of control over the vehicle, engaging effectively the SAE Level 1 of automation. A driver uses visual and audio instructions from a small communication device to manually perform the driving tasks. What Vavilin calls “decelerated automation” helps to bring the technology to the market faster, skipping the legislative restrictions on self-driving technologies as well as automakers’ limitations on aftermarket modifications.

“Too slow pace of legislative changes in an emerging industry such as self-driving transport, for sure, is suspending commercialization of technologies,” says Dina Valiullina, account manager for logistic company Traft at agency The Mellows.

If the telematic-basetrack analogy makes any sense, consumers will soon get bored with fuel economy and start demanding for a more extensive range of benefits. Old-time telematics strategy had exhausted the opportunities of double-digit growth in a decade or so and gave room to the sophisticated solutions of overall safety and intelligent transportation management.

“With modern telematic systems, employees are monitored via wearable tracking devices,” says Khadonova. “Services gain momentum such as driver scoring, remote pre-trip inspections and vehicle diagnostics and seamless indoor-outdoor navigation, among others.”

Vavilin said that as soon as the legislative framework and customers are ready in any of the European national markets, the system can be upgraded to the Level 2 and even Level 3 by means of a software update: “The ultimate future goal is platooning with fully automated control of the vehicle. Automation will start from predictive cruise control and, more specifically, accelerator control, because, currently, we’re seeing interest to it.”


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