You may have heard about the inevitability of self-driving cars. You might even have a car now with some of the features that are paving the way towards full autonomy like a car that brakes when it senses something behind you when you’re in reverse.
Tests are being run, and developments are being made at breakneck speed by many major companies to make fully autonomous cars a reality as soon as possible. But what you might not have known is that self-driving trucks are also in the works.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be driving on the freeway, and there won’t be anyone behind the wheel of that loaded semi-truck in the lane next to you. Due to the big push in advancements from major companies like Tesla, Daimler/Mercedes Benz, and Volvo, autonomous trucks might hit the road before self-driving cars.
Levels of Autonomy of Self-Driving Cars
There’s a whole spectrum when it comes to autonomous cars. Levels were designed to describe each one, depending on how much of the driving is done by the driver or handled by the vehicle. These SAE International levels also apply to self-driving trucks.
Fully self-driving trucks, or level 5 on the autonomy scale, could be as little as ten to fifteen years away, but some testing has shown that the lower self-driving car levels could be within reach much sooner.
Could Self-Driving Trucks Make Roads Safer?
Statistics show that close to 4,000 people die every year in car accidents involving large trucks. Companies developing the technologies to make self-driving trucks a reality are looking to reduce that number by taking driver error out of the equation.
The self-driving trucks that are being tested now are loaded with artificial intelligence armed with cameras, sensors, and detection systems that unlike human drivers, shouldn’t get distracted or tired. The A.I. on the trucks is also programmed to learn as it goes, designed to improve the more driving it does.
Supporters of self-driving trucks say that the trucks will still require drivers to be somewhat involved to drive on city streets and with loading and unloading cargo, but with the truck taking over most of the long-haul driving, it should be less exhausting for drivers.
Although drivers still should keep their eyes on the road in case the truck comes across something it’s not programmed to handle, overall, self-driving trucks will require less driver involvement. The theory is that this will make driving safer for the truck drivers and everyone else on the road because drivers who are less tired should lead to fewer accidents.
Self-Driving Trucks Might Help Companies Cut Costs
Large trucks are notorious for being gas-guzzlers, and some only average a little over 6 miles per gallon. Testers of self-driving trucks have developed a method called platooning where autonomous trucks of two or more are programmed to follow each other closely which reduces drag and allows them to get more miles out of each gallon of fuel.
Cutting fuel expenses would save companies a lot of money, especially when driving thousands of miles on coast-to-coast hauls. Of course, consumers hope that a benefit of lower costs for freight trucking companies would translate to lower costs of the goods being transported for shoppers.
Autonomous Trucks Can Fill the Job Gap
Truck driving is a field that has a lot of turnover, meaning a high rate of drivers who quit. The American Trucking Association says driver turnover was at 90 percent for 2017. There were also estimates of about 50,000 unfilled driver jobs.
Having trucks that will eventually be able to drive themselves with minimal driver involvement means that companies won’t have to sit around waiting to hire qualified drivers to fill those positions.
Self-Driving Trucks May Benefit Truck Drivers
Many of the supporters for the development of self-driving trucks say that having autonomous trucks will benefit truck drivers in the long run. They speculate that the trucks will be able to complete routes faster, so the drivers that will be in the truck to oversee that everything goes smoothly will be able to get home quicker.
Having faster delivery times would mean less hours that truckers would have to spend on the road and could lead to a better work-life balance.
Some self-driving truck supporters say that truck drivers will be similar to airline pilots where like where the planes do the heavy lifting, truck drivers will provide guidance, but the truck will do most of the work.
Another point that those in favor of self-driving trucks make is that drivers will get a boost to their education when they have to learn more about the truck’s computerized systems. Having self-driving cars and trucks loaded with A.I., sensors, and radars will need tech-savvy individuals behind the wheel to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Starsky Robotics says they want to have drivers in a control-room setting monitoring trucks by watching them on displays and then controlling them remotely with a joystick for the first and last mile of the trip. But they want the truck to do all the driving on its own. Starsky says this will keep truck drivers involved, but without the need for the long hours they would put it on the road.
Self-Driving Technology Is Still Not Perfect
Although self-driving cars and trucks are touted as being super safe, the fact is that there are still many tests being run and developments being made before fully autonomous status can be reached. Even though most self-driving vehicles are currently at level 2 or 3, there is still work to be done to ensure other drivers and pedestrians will be safe sharing the road with these products.
In March 2018, an Arizona pedestrian was killed by one of Uber’s self-driving cars. In 2017, another Uber autonomous vehicle was involved in a crash due to failure to yield from the driver of the other car involved. However, there were drivers behind the wheels of both Uber self-driven cars.
As a result of these incidents, Uber has shut down exploring the self-driving truck market. They decided to focus on improving their self-driving cars for the moment. Clearly, if they can make their self-driving cars safer, then that should translate to using that technology for safe self-driving trucks.
Tesla’s Autopilot system also has far from a perfect record. So far, two deaths have occurred in accidents where the feature was being used by a driver. The autopilot system is designed to pick up moving objects and ignore data on stationary items, which led to it rear-ending a fire truck that was stopped in California.
In Las Vegas, the world’s first self-driving shuttle that was offered free rides to Vegas residents within a half-mile loop, was involved in a car accident on its very first day. It was determined that the driver of the other truck was at fault, and no one was injured, but the question remains if the incident would have occurred if the shuttle would have had a human driver behind the wheel.
Demand for Self-Driving Trucks Growing
Amazon has been looking to add autonomous delivery minivans. DHL wants to test self-driving delivery trucks as well. Many companies are looking to explore how self-driving cars and trucks can be useful to their businesses as well as their bottom line.
Self-driving trucks are proving to be a dependable option for companies who are looking to improve their processes and take advantage of developing technologies to propel the industry into the future.
Early in 2018, Embark ran a test in which a large self-driven truck completed a run from California to Florida pretty much on its own. Although there was a driver on board as a safety precaution, the company claims the truck drove most of the five- day trip on its own.
Although there’s mounting evidence that self-driving trucks could be reliable for companies and many major brands are investing money in the industry, the technology still has safety faults that need to be fixed.