Autonomous trucks are progressing quickly. More accurately though, autonomous vehicle technology is progressing quickly. These technological advances will have a positive impact on the trucking industry, which employs more than 2.5 million truckers, by giving drivers tools to make their jobs easier.
In recent months, companies like Uber, Daimler, and Tesla have propelled the technology forward a lot faster than many of us could have predicted. Learn more about how this technology is going to impact you.
Truck Drivers Are NOT Going Anywhere
When Daimler introduced the world’s first road-legal autonomous truck in Nevada last year, the reaction from truckers was decidedly negative. Many drivers questioned the impact this technology would have on their jobs and livelihood.
It's important to recognize that there are some obvious limitations to autonomous technology. Trucks can’t deliver or pick up loads without human intervention, they can’t manage transactions, they can’t troubleshoot themselves, and they can’t do walk arounds or fix themselves. Autonomous truck technology can help trucks to drive down the road and not run into things – but there’s way more to being a professional driver than just that. Autonomous truck technology is a driver aid, not a driver replacement!
As the technology progresses, the role of the truck driver will evolve. We have had autopilot capabilities in planes for decades, and yet planes still require a pilot and even a co-pilot to be at the controls and oversee operations during flight. Autonomous trucking is not that different; in that there will always be a requirement for qualified personnel to be at the wheel, making sure all is going well and ready to take over if necessary.
The Benefits to Drivers of Autonomous Technology
If drivers are always going to be necessary, then what is the point of autonomous vehicle technology? Why bother? Autonomous technology can increase safety, help reduce driver fatigue, and even introduce cost savings.
Thousands of people die every year from auto accidents involving trucks, which are often caused by human error. Autonomous trucking capabilities can drastically decrease those numbers by eliminating human error and fatigue.
As well, wherever trucking companies can cut costs and increase efficiencies, they can improve their bottom line. Fuel costs are a big part of the operation expenses for trucking companies. With vehicle platooning, trucks can drive close behind one another to better use the road and minimize drag. This can save time, increase fuel efficiencies, and reduce emissions.
What Exactly is the Technology?
We already use automated vehicle technology in our cars and trucks today. Automatic transmissions, cruise control, and power steering (to name a few), have all been available for years to assist drivers. So, what are some of these hot new technologies that are impacting the industry? Two of them are:
- Semi-Automated Autonomous Trucks
- Platooning and Guided Highways
Semi-Automated Autonomous Trucks
Semi-automated self-driving trucks can “drive” with driver supervision under limited circumstances, like driving long distances on an interstate.
The technology itself includes onboard radar, cameras, and sensors in conjunction with a GPS to monitor the truck’s environment and track its position. Radar units in the front bumper keep the truck the correct distance from other vehicles on the road and identifies any upcoming obstacles. A dash camera recognizes lane markings and communicates with the steering gear to keep it centered in the lane. Advanced cruise control combines active cruise and distance control with the ability to stop-and-go without driver intervention.
Platooning and Guided Highways
Platooning enables many trucks to travel along a highway together, all controlled by the first vehicle. Platooning improves safety by quickening reaction time, but it can also introduce cost efficiencies as well. Trucks driving close together at a constant speed can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
However, driving safely in a platoon formation leaves little braking distance between trucks and requires a high level of vehicle-to-vehicle communication to be executed safely. They must be electronically linked so that their acceleration and braking is synchronized. Think of it as extreme adaptive cruise control.
What Are the Next Big Hurdles for Autonomous Vehicle Technology?
Last week, the first significant federal legislation on self-driving cars got approval to move to the full chamber for consideration from the US House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. This could be the beginning of a new era in autonomous vehicle technology.
The bill, in its current incarnation, would allow companies like Tesla, Daimler, Google, and Uber to more easily test and deploy self-driving technology on U.S. roads. To qualify, these companies would have to prove that their self-driving technology is as safe as the cars currently on the road. In exchange, the Department of Transportation could exempt those autonomous vehicles from some federal safety requirements — like rules that require them to have steering wheels.
Autonomous technology can result in a more productive driver who’s able to perform other duties while behind the wheel, like scheduling loads or completing paperwork. Perhaps most significantly, once the safety benefits are proven, autonomous technology could be the catalyst for regulatory changes that improve truck productivity by extending driver hours-of-service or convincing the government to allow longer, heavier truck and trailer configurations. The possibilities are endless - but one thing this technology will not do is eliminate the need for a driver.
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