Are Driverless Trucks the Future of Transportation?

One of the big development pursuits in the tech field recently has been that of the “Driver-less” car.  Many big tech companies and startups alike are envisioning a day where driver interactions with their vehicles are limited or non-existent. Most of the press around this technology has been about personal use, but it should come as no surprise that similar applications are being developed in the transportation and logistics industry as well.  It’s no stretch to say that the ability to use automated trucks could completely revolutionize the shipping and logistics industries.

This could come at a heavy price for those working in the trucking industries that have based their life around driving and being on the road.  In this post we’ll look into the possibilities of automating the transportation industry by using driverless trucks and just what does such a future look like.

Driver-less Trucks – The Race to Innovate

In any given year over 3 million commercial trucks carry nearly 10 Billion Tons of cargo in the United States alone.    What if computers – which never get tired, distracted or drowsy – could operate these vehicles to shoulder some or all of the work so that their human counterparts could be better rested and utilized when they actually do need to drive the rig.In addition to better labor utilization, these driver-less vehicles are expected to have better fuel efficiency, maintenance and safety.

To this end, companies like Daimler, Nissan, Freightliner and Caterpillar are busy working on truck prototypes that don’t need a human to operate them.  While they refer to the newer technology as “Driver Assist” these cars all rely upon computers, a number of different sensors, and sophisticated GPS systems that are not readily available to the public. Each of these companies is racing to be the first with a fully compliant working truck.  As of 2016, there are a bevy of companies that have preliminary approvals to drive on US Highway, like Freightliner (see below), which has the tentative approval to operate these driverless trucks on the roads in Nevada, so long as a real-life human being is in the driver’s seat.

Assessing a Driverless Truck World

At first, driver-assist trucks will be priced, making it unlikely that smallerlogistics companies will be investing in them without some serious research. The current estimated prices could pay an entire fleet for several years, and don’t include the possible price of replacements if something were to go wrong. Replacements are a real possibility, when no-one knows if these new vehicles will even last, tests currently don’t go back more than a decade, and the wear and tear that transportation style travel would cause has not been evaluated. This means that most companies wouldn’t be likely to invest at first.

However, big name companies who run standard routes, are looking to get their times down, and who can get everything they need done with just a few vehicles will likely invest in these from the start. These will be the companies that take on the risks, that can mix automation in with normal routes, and that will do internal studies on the actual efficiency of these trucks. These companies will essentially open the door for others to make their own decisions in an informed manner.

Once these vehicles have been available for a few years, we feel the industry will likely shift, with more and more companies going towards partial automation, and human labor focusing on other parts of the shipping process. This change over will likely be gradual, and will open up a number of new mechanical and technology related positions within transportation companies.

Going Driverless – Rules and Regs

While the development of driverless trucks is well underway, current State and Federal laws and regulations have a long way to go before wide spread use on the road is possible.   The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) currently maintains five distinct classifications of autonomous vehicles:

  • Level 0 – No-Automation:  Driver maintains complete control of the car or truck at all times
  • Level 1 – Function-specific Automation:  Controls like brake-assist, kick in to aid the driver when sensing an emergency.
  • Level 2 – Combined Function Automation:  This classification involves the full-automation of primary controls like steering and throttling, while giving control back to the driver at any time.  Newer cars with “Lane Centering” technology enabled will automatically adjust steering to maintain the car in the center of the lane.  The driver can easily take control of the functionality by simply using the steering wheel
  • Level 3 – Limited Driving Automation:  At this level, a driver may grant full operational control to the vehicle under specific driving conditions (think normal highway driving), however under complicated driving scenarios like merging and city driving, the driver is expected to take over
  • Level 4 – Self-Driving Automation:  A Level 4 classified vehicle will be one that will perform all driving automation with the expected input of destination from a driver or outside human entity.  A driver can take control of the vehicle, but is not expected to during the course of the trip
  • Level 5 – Full Driving Automation, No Driver:  This classification refers to a completely autonomous vehicle that is designed with no option for human interaction

Our Take

Overall, driver-less trucks are the future, but, at least for now, they aren’t the doom and gloom bringer of the end of driver-based trucking that most people are worried about.  More than likely, the technology will be used to assist drivers putting less stress on human workers, opening up new jobs, and ensuring better metrics, efficiency and lower costs.

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