Wal-Mart's Future Fleet of Transformers

Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) drone messengers can step aside -- Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) has unveiled its fleet of the future, and it looks a lot like an army of Transformers.

From its sleek sliding doors, centered driver’s seat that bears a liking to a captain’s chair on a spaceship, to the monitors that stick out from both sides of the dashboard like antennas, the fleet has a futuristic feel that is different from the 18-wheelers on the road today.

“We’ve built technology trucks” with “potentially game-changing technologies,” said Elizabeth Fretheim, Wal-Mart’s director of logistics sustainability.

With a trailer for the first time built almost exclusively of carbon fiber, the hybrid-powered aerodynamic prototype designed by truck manufacturer Peterbilt is 4,000 pounds lighter than Wal-Mart’s existing trucks. It also boasts fully-customizable screens, providing drivers the ability to monitor performance gauges in real time.

Yet, truck engineers say this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, heavy trucks might even be able to drive themselves.

Autonomous Semis

Stricter federal regulations on emissions and engine innovation have helped improve fuel efficiency over the last decade, but now research is starting to pour into making these massive fleets autonomous.

Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Truck Association, says there are some emerging technologies coming down the road that could “significantly change this industry.”

Imagine a couple of 18-wheelers driving nose-to-tail on the highway -- or "platooning" -- braking and accelerating simultaneously in a fluid motion that could help reduce road congestion, optimize fuel efficiency and improve safety and delivery times.

“Heavy trucks don’t have accidents often, but when they do they’re catastrophic."

- David Bevly, Auburn University Engineering Professor

It is similar to the investments being made by the likes of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and BMW for passenger cars. And much like how the U.S. Department of Transportation is expecting to one day require all passenger vehicles to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, David Bevly, a professor in Auburn University’s Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, says he expects similar rules to soon apply to trucks.

Under these emerging technologies, semis would be able to virtually communicate with one another without human intervention, possibly cutting out the need for human drivers altogether.

Studies have already proven the feasibility from an engineering perspective, and now a team compiled by Auburn University is looking to test the logistics through a multi-layered research project that will culminate next spring with a physical test on the university’s 1.7-mile track.

“We’re specifically focused on the practicality of it all, beyond just the technology,” said Bevly, the lead researcher on Auburn’s platooning project.

Peterbilt, which is being consulted on the project, has been using automatic braking systems for a few years already. It is now investing heavily in driver assist technologies that it says would serve as the first steps to platooning, and perhaps one-day, to completely autonomous semis.

Cost and Safety 

The demand from fleet operators is there because of the potential for significant fuel cost savings.

Advanced aerodynamics like the ones debuted in the Wal-Mart prototype are expected to improve fuel economy by “at least” 10%, according to Bill Kahn, Peterbilt Manager of Advanced Concepts. Bevly says platooning could add another 10% or more on top of that.

“A huge amount of innovation in the truck industry has been driven by fuel economy benefits and safety improvements. Truck platooning gives you both,” said Richard Bishop, an industry liaison consultant to Auburn.

Another benefit is its improved safety. Regular people who drive compact cars might shudder at the thought of several 18-wheelers traveling just a few feet apart at 60 miles per hour.

However, supporters would argue that some truckers already drive dangerously close together in an effort to reap air drafting benefits. Robotic trucks, they'd say, are safer because they can react much quicker than a human can.

“Heavy trucks don’t have accidents often, but when they do they’re catastrophic,” Bevly said.

Of course, a big challenge remains the cost to make these enormous upgrades.

A tractor is turned over every five to six years, according to Scott, so the return on investment must outweigh the price of ensuring the technology, brakes and accelerators are compatible for platooning.

Scott says he doesn’t think platooning will be widespread in the industry. Rather, it will likely have its place, possibly among big brands like Wal-Mart that ship dozens of trailers at once to the same region.

Wal-Mart, with its 4,700 U.S. retail facilities and whopping $274 billion in worldwide revenues, is hoping its next-generation trucks set a precedent.

While the prototype it unveiled last week does not have autonomous capabilities, the major investment in truck innovation by the world's largest retailer could trigger a much-needed overhaul of the multi-billion-dollar trucking industry.

“At the prototype level it’s quite mature, it works," Bishop said.