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03:00 PM

Making the Automated Truck Connection

Great Dane and JOST are working on the next generation of automated technology


While the jury is still out on the role of the driver in the operation of increasingly-automated trucks, equipment innovations are rolling down the road toward complete autonomy. In the short-term, the evolution of equipment innovations are benefiting today’s drivers, making their jobs safer and more efficient. Seeing that the future is coming fast, Great Dane has partnered with JOST to build trailers that can couple automatically with tractors without driver intervention.

Auto-coupling means an automatic connection for pneumatic brakes and electrical systems. It enables fifth-wheel coupling with remote control and display as well as electrically-powered landing gear with auto deploy and retract systems. The full automation of the manual coupling process ensures greater safety and efficiency in modern fleets.

How does it work?

The operator uses a remote control developed by JOST to initiate the connection process. Sensors that live within the specifically-designed fifth wheel ensure that the kingpin is securely connected while the kingpin assembly accepts the fifth-wheel connection. The remote indicates that a secure connection has been made.

The electrical and pneumatic connections are routed through a fifth-wheel mate with a female connector on the kingpin assembly that makes all necessary connections. Think about it in the same way that an HDMI cable connects both video and audio to your TV – one connection, multiple applications. Once the connection is made, the system automatically raises the landing gear.

To uncouple, the process is reversed and the necessary procedures are displayed via the remote.

“I believe it will be a safer coupling system than the current manual method since there is no driver intervention before and after coupling,” said Chris Lee, Great Dane’s vice president of Engineering. “The sensor on the tractor and trailer kingpin will indicate positive coupled status.”

It also eliminates human error and the chance for injury in the coupling process since the landing gear is remotely retracted and deployed and electrical connections are made when the tractor and trailer physically connect. While the system is currently at the prototype stage, Lee sees great potential in the system as trucks become more automated, and, ultimately, driverless.

“This technology has the potential to be useful when all-autonomous power units become available,” he said. “Driverless power units will require auto-coupling-capable trailers. The adaptation rate will be slow since the development rate for the autonomous vehicle and required infrastructure is slow. There may be a higher opportunity with autonomous yard spotters.”

Of course, connection components can always be operated mechanically as well, and the system does have dual-mode coupling, meaning that you can still make the fifth-wheel and kingpin connection system manually just as you do with today’s tractor-trailer connection systems. While there is still work to do to ensure the system operates properly, Great Dane has a road map for introducing and supporting the auto-coupling technology.

“There will be a lot of debugging in design, operations and training, and ROI and TCO will have to be proven as well,” Lee said. While this technology falls into the “truck equipment of tomorrow” bucket, the foundation work is being done today. This system is also being discussed within the Technology and Maintenance Council’s (TMC) Future Truck Committee, specifically as a study topic for the S6 Chassis study group for the future truck.