Volvo Trucks’ recent announcement that it is working on connectivity with Volvo Cars’ passenger-car business is one of many examples of how the heavy-duty industry is embracing future technologies and the need to move forward (literally) in the age of the digital vehicle.

One of the areas MAN has made big progress on, in recent months, is platooning. The truck manufacturer has been working on the idea of networking two or more trucks together on the road since 2005 but, while it has learned a lot in that time, only now is the company seeing the fruits of its labor.

Working together with German logistics provider DB Schenker and the Hochschule Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, MAN is part of the world’s first networked real-world truck convoy. The trio are key members of a trial that has been running since June where two networked trucks travel a 145-km (90-mi) stretch of the A9 highway between DB Schenker’s office in Neufahrn and Nuremberg.

Having started development work in 2017, the trials officially began in June 2018. The trucks were to be running empty until early August, at which point they were to be making up to three routine logistics trips and laden with part loads predominantly of machine parts, drinks, or paper.

The pilot project is government funded to the tune of around €2 million and will run until January 2019, when further decisions will be made about how to proceed and further develop platooning and autonomous driving in Germany and beyond.

The system works by the lead truck asking to “connect” to the one at the rear when at a close, but safe, distance behind. Once connected, the distance is maintained, enabling advantages in aerodynamics and therefore fuel economy to be gained. According to the MAN team, another goal of the project is to find out insights into the social acceptance of networked driving as well as “transport policy and infrastructural prerequisites.”

“The networking system we have here has been a major step, because we have been able to assess the reliability of the system in a third-party logistic network,” explained Peter Strauss, Technical Coordinator and Project Leader in platooning at MAN. “We’ve had to do a lot of engineering on safety, reliability, and also developed a training program for the drivers. We have made a big step in a short space of time.”

Strauss said there will may be an update on the trial at the 2018 IAA for Commercial Vehicles in Hanover, Germany, but full results will probably wait until the conclusion of the project. He added that there are no plans at the moment to increase the number of vehicles in the platoon.

“The route we are operating on already existed, so there is a certain amount of freight that naturally fits two vehicles,” he explained. “Also, we don’t have the permission, plus we want to minimize the impact on traffic and have little or no effect on other road users.”

Powertrain technology is another hive of activity in the heavy-truck sector, but very few manufacturers have committed to electric drive to production reality—although that situation is set to change soon. Having debuted its eTruck in 2016, Mercedes-Benz hinted that that vehicle could be on sale by 2020. The German manufacturer has already started field trials of the eActros, a battery-powered version of its largest truck. The eActros offers a range of 200 km (124 mi) and is being evaluated in 18- and 25-t (19.8- and 27.6-ton) forms, by customers in real-life conditions.

Meanwhile Renault Trucks, a long-time admirer of electric powertrains for its vehicles, has unveiled its second-generation of all-electric vehicles. The French truck maker has spent more than 10 years researching and developing electric vehicle opportunities, together with commercial operators all over the world.

“Ten years ago, we were the pioneers, promoting electric trucks to improve city air quality,” explained Renault Trucks’ president, Bruno Blin. “Today we can offer a range of electric vehicles with proven performance and the experts in our network are ready to help our customers’ transition to electromobility.”

The Renault Trucks range is set to stretch from the Master ZE van, which will be available by September 2018, to the 16-t (17.6-ton) D ZE and 26-t (28.7-ton) D Wide ZE models, set to be introduced in 2019. The specially designed 16-t version of the Model D ZE will be aimed at those operators running urban and temperature-controlled deliveries, while its larger stablemate, the D Wide ZE, has been developed specifically for efficient refuse collection.

A medium-duty ZE vehicles have an operating range of up to 300 km (190 mi), depending on usage and battery configuration. Availability of rapid DC charging enables the lithium-ion batteries within both Model D variants to be charged in less than 2 h via the 150-kW Combo CCS connector. For overnight AC charging, the time to fully charge a 300-kW·h battery is 12 h.

Elsewhere in the commercial-vehicle sector, autonomous buses are beginning to appear in concept and prototype form. Despite MAN mentioning development of autonomous buses, it is very early days and staff are staying tight-lipped, but at Volvo it’s a different story. During the Volvo Ocean Race, the Swedish company demonstrated a prototype of its electric city bus, modified for autonomous operation.

“With low noise level and emission-free operation, electric bus systems provide an excellent alternative for attractive and sustainable public transport. With various degrees of automation, we can make even further progress regarding safety, comfort, and efficiency,” commented Håkan Agnevall, President Volvo Buses.

The 12 m (39-ft) long bus is described as “safe and comfortable,” being programmed to accelerate and brake gently and smoothly when starting off and stopping. The bus is equipped with sensors that maintain a constant watch around the vehicle and information from those sensors is used to navigate and will—in the future—help prevent accidents and incidents. Volvo says the bus will also be used for platooning purposes.