Vehicle technology is changing rapidly, and perhaps nowhere faster than in the development of autonomous (self-drive) trucks. A number of successful tests have led many technology experts to believe that autonomous trucks will be seen on the roads before cars.
In some ways the issues of programming an autonomous vehicle can be simpler to solve for trucks than for cars, because trucks will typically spend much more time on the open highway than they do trying to navigate busy city streets. On the other hand, the huge size, longer braking distance and relative lack of maneuverability of many commercial trucks raises safety concerns. Which will need to be addressed before the necessary regulatory approvals are granted.
Could Autonomous Trucks be Here Soon?
Although the company has acknowledged that fully autonomous trucks may not be in general use before the end of the 2020s, it believes that trucks meeting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Level 4 category of “High Automation” may be on the road within 5 years. Level 4 trucks are defined as those equipped with Automated Driving Systems (ADS) which will enable them “to perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment – essentially, do all the driving – in certain circumstances.” In this way the Level 4 ADS are somewhat analogous to the auto pilot features familiar in commercial aircraft. However, these circumstances will be restricted to certain pre-determined weather and road conditions and the intervention of a human driver will still be required in some situations. It is clear though that autonomous trucks will not be ready to handle all conditions and driving tasks soon. So, developers are working towards a future where drivers and automation work together to transport freight more efficiently and safely.
What is Platooning?
Another intermediate stage before the arrival of fully driver-less trucks may be the “platooning” system for highways; essentially a convoy of automated trucks connected by wireless communications, only the leading one of which will require a human driver. Platooning allows the trucks to follow closely behind one another, effectively slipstreaming the lead truck to reduce overall fuel consumption. A driver will still be required for each truck when the convoy leaves an interstate highway, but it’s estimated that the system could still reduce operating costs by as much as 10%, with the highest savings being achieved on the longer distance interstate routes.
Will There Still be Drivers?
For truck drivers worried about what automation might mean for their future employment, this is also good news. Not only is there a current shortage of drivers in the industry generally, but the shortage is most acute on the long interstate routes, which are least popular with drivers. Autonomous trucks on these routes will therefore be filling vacancies rather than replacing existing drivers.
A considerable number of technical solutions and regulatory decisions will be required before the full impact of autonomous trucks upon the freight industry can be realized. But the potential commercial benefits of automation are so enormous that the race to introduce the new technology is only likely to intensify over the next few years.