Southwest Research showcases self-driving semi-truck, 'Big Red'

Truck can drive, back up trailer by itself

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - On the now well-traveled road toward autonomous vehicles, sedans and passenger vehicles often get the limelight.

But the Southwest Research Institute is working on something a little bigger.

For the past few years SWRI's Unmanned Systems section has been working with a self-driving semitruck, dubbed "Big Red."

Though a safety driver is usually at the wheel, the automated Big Red can drive a predetermined route based on previously taken pictures of the pavement.

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So after one pass to create a map, Chirs Mentzer, the section's research and development manager, said. "We can go back and recognize those spots. And when we recognize those we can know where we are to better than an inch of accuracy at speeds over 80 mph."

While much of the hype about self-driving cars revolves around passenger vehicles, Mentzer said there's a lot of money to save in trucking.

Besides possible safety benefits, automated trucks could drive in a convoy much closer together than humans.

"And you can actually get much better fuel economy -- like over 10 percent savings in fuel economy," Mentzer explained. "Which doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars in diesel fuel you're saving a few million dollars."

The truck can also back up a trailer on its own, opening up the possibility of being used as sort of trucker training wheels for newer drivers.

Despite its capabilities, Big Red doesn't have any experience on the highway. It lives mostly on a closed loop on SWRI's campus.

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However, Big Red isn't meant to be the final, road-ready product. The truck is just a way for SWRI to showcase its developments and entice companies to hire the institute.

"We need to come up with good ideas," Mentzer said. "Stuff that people might be interested in. We do internal research projects and we need to put it on platforms."

But if this technology gets widespread implementation on the road, could it mean the end of truckers? Mentzer said time will tell.

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"I mean it's kind of a cliché, but every time a door closes another one opens, and so you know we create these capabilities that might eliminate one type of job, but it's going to create a lot of other different types of jobs," he said.

For now, SWRI is going to keep on trucking.

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