Will autonomous trucks ever rule the world?

Posted by Harriet Mills on Mar 10, 2017 3:28:10 PM


If you’re a Marvel Comics fan and have seen the latest box-office hit “Logan” you may have noticed a scene where driverless trucks are a part of the fast-paced, futuristic landscape.  How close are we to this sci-fi reality?

iStock-463075699.jpgNot that close, although, great strides are being made towards development and adoption.  It is important to note there’s a glaring distinction between autonomous (self-driving) trucks and driverless trucks.  These are two very different things. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made it easy for us, with five clearly defined levels of autonomous driving.

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Level 0: A human driver controls it all: steering, brakes, acceleration, and power.

Level 1: Most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the vehicle.

Level 2: At least one system is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. The driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off the pedal at the same time. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle.

Level 3: A driver is still required, but is able to completely shift safety-critical functions to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. Driver can intervene if necessary.

Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical driving functions and monitors roadway conditions throughout the trip. This is limited to the operational design domain (ODD) of the vehicle, which means it does not work for every driving scenario.

Level 5: Fully autonomous, meaning the vehicle's performance is equal to that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments.

We are a long way from having full-on driverless trucks.  Even with all the cameras, computers, radar, software, sensors and remote-controlled robots, some aspects of driving are inherently human.  For example, these are a few things that could still cause major bumps in the road:

  • Poorly marked roads, faded center lines, and cracked pavement could be problematic for a vehicle’s sensors relying on road markings for navigation.
  • Detours and inner city street rules that change weekly may pose a problem for driverless trucks.
  • Let’s face it, parking is an issue for living, breathing truck drivers. How exactly is that going to work with an autonomous truck? And parking a big rig has got to be tricky!

But the truth is, autonomous trucks probably will become more commonplace in the not-too-distant future because of one single fact. They offer solutions to some of the industry’s biggest problems. Two big problems that come to mind first …

Solving the Driver Shortage Issue

Our industry faces a significant driver shortage. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA) this shortage is currently at about 48,000 drivers and is only destined to get worse — much worse.  Autonomous trucks could eliminate this shortage altogether. They also would make the HOS ruling irrelevant, since drivers simply could put the truck on autopilot to avoid excessive fatigue – zero forced breaks with improved efficiency.

Increasing Safety

Safety is the primary concern of any kind of mass transportation network, and trucking is no exception. The truck driving community has had its battles with safety legislation that sometimes seems to do more harm to the industry than good.  The fact remains, however, that human error is responsible for hundreds of thousands of truck-related crashes every year, many of which claim lives. Drivers can get fatigued, can be distracted, can abuse drugs or alcohol … machines can’t.  It is important to remember that the technology is meant to support the driver, not the other way around, enabling us to do more with less.

The Big Picture

Trucks are responsible for delivering 70 percent of the country’s freight – equal to approximately 10.5 billion tons a year, utilizing 3.5 million trucker drivers in America. It is a staggering $700 billion industry. Any industry this large has to be aggressive when it comes to improving processes, utilizing automation, and gaining efficiencies.  Autonomous vehicles do all of the above.

So what’s the latest? Who are some of the major players?

  • May 6, 2015: First licensed self-driving truck – Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration makes maiden voyage at Hoover Dam in Nevada.
  • October 2016: Uber/Otto drives 50,000 Budweiser beer cans across Colorado.
  • Feb 3, 2017: Starksy Robotics test-drove a vehicle 120 miles in Florida, truly driverless.
  • Feb 28, 2017: Embark unveiled its new self-driving truck, which has driven 10,000 test miles so far, employs ex-SpaceX and Audi personnel, cofounded by two 21-year-olds, Alex Rodrigues and Brandon Moak.

We will never be able to completely dismiss human’s involvement in transportation.  Logistics a relationship business with many situational variables – it will be virtually impossible to completely automate the industry. Even if things become more autonomous, there will be a place and a need for the human element. 

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard

Do you work in the transportation and logistics industry? What are your thoughts on autonomous trucks? 

Tags: Carrier News, Technology, Shipper News, Industry News