September 13, 2017 / 6:59 PM / a year ago

Next level of truck autonomy possible around 2020: Navistar CEO

DETROIT (Reuters) - Heavy-duty trucks could have the technology to haul freight with reduced driver input on U.S. highways by around 2020, but adoption will depend on regulations and customer demand, truck maker Navistar International Corp’s (NAV.N) chief executive said.

“I have a lot of confidence in where the technology is headed,” Navistar CEO Troy Clarke told Reuters in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I think you’ll see this come in waves. The next wave will be around the 2020 timeframe.”

Clarke and the head of the largest U.S. truck lobby group earlier on Wednesday urged a U.S. Senate panel to include self-driving commercial trucks in proposed legislation intended to speed autonomous vehicles to market.

That next level of technology will tie together systems that will allow trucks to perform basic but vital functions like staying in lane and avoiding collisions with reduced input from drivers.

The technology level after that, which will enable trucks to self drive under specific circumstances such as on highways, should come “this side of 2025” but adoption will depend on the U.S. regulatory environment, Clarke said.

Battery costs for large electric vehicles could reach a cost-competitive level with diesel engines around the end of this decade, he added.

Early applications will focus on vehicles with predictable routes of less than 200 miles per day that can recharge overnight at a depot, such as school buses.

“We think that is on the horizon … and we are dedicating energy and resources into that space,” he said. “I’m not really making product announcements but I want to lead people to understand there are product announcements to be made in the near future.”

Clarke also said a procurement joint venture with German automaker Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) is on track to save his company $200 million annually within five years and that Navistar is collaborating with VW engineers in Europe on the next generation of powertrains and transmissions.

Volkswagen bought a 16.6 percent stake in Navistar last year.

U.S. truck industry Class 8 orders should be higher in 2018 than 2017, Clarke said. According to preliminary industry data, August orders for the heavy-duty trucks that haul freight along U.S. highways rose 50 percent versus the same period in 2016, the third straight month of robust order growth.

Navistar said in June it expects 2017 U.S. truck industry orders in a range from 190,000 to 220,000 units.

“We have a bigger backlog than we had this time last year, and backlog is a word that I haven’t used much in the last three years,” Clarke said.

Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Meredith Mazzilli

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