Google may be on the way to releasing its own self-driving vehicles, but the company will now have to contend with the government of Japan, which has already begun testing self-driving trucks.
Japanese government-funded NEDO (the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) has programmed four trucks to remain in a convoy, with each truck being kept four meters (13 feet) apart.
The rationale for the program is fuel-efficiency: By keeping the trucks in a straight line and four meters apart, drag is decreased (similar to "drafting" race cars) and thus fuel efficiency is improved.
NEDO has been developing the program for a few years now, reports The Verge. In 2010, NEDO programmed a three-truck convoy with trucks keeping 15 meters (50 feet) apart. The report by Japanese broadcaster NHK mentions that the efficiency inherent in a four-truck convoy could improve the vehicles' fuel consumption by 15 percent.
In the current tests, the lead truck is in fact driven by a human being, keeping the system similar to DARPA's four-legged robot pack mule, as reported in September 2012 by The Verge. DARPA's system is currently in the works for the U.S. military.
NEDO's "Automated Truck Platoon" does not require a human leader, however, and the company is scheduling more tests for later in 2013.
Watching the demo video of the NEDO trucks — especially from the inside of the empty cabs — can be an eerie experience, particularly at one point in the test when a truck's alarm goes off with the truck closing in fast on a roadway impediment. Don't panic: The trucks can stop (ostensibly on a dime) and swerve as needed.
A commenter on The Verge's article page points out the Automated Truck Platoon demos remarkably resemble Volvo's Road Train project, whose own demonstration shows a string of cars and a truck that allow for drivers inside to "be able to both read the newspaper and eat breakfast while traveling at 90 kilometers per hour."
"It's amazing how quickly you get used to this," says the driver of one of the Volvo Road Train vehicles.
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