Trucking

Five Reasons Not to Worry about Self-Driving Trucks

Trucks are getting smarter, but they’ll still need someone behind the wheel.

As you may know, a lot has happened lately with autonomous technology in the trucking industry.

Manufacturers like Volvo, Daimler, Tesla and a new tech company called Otto have developed and are testing self-driving trucks. Proponents of automated vehicles tout how they will make trucking freight safer, cheaper and more efficient. An article in the Los Angeles Times predicted that over 1.7 million truck driving jobs could be eliminated by automation within the next decade.

Worried yet? Don’t be.

The development of trucks that can drive themselves is a concern for the trucking industry, but a lot of things must happen to make autonomous semi-trucks a major force in the industry. Below are five reasons why you shouldn’t worry too much about self-driving trucks taking over the roads anytime soon:

The Government has to Get Involved

More than a dozen states have laws on the books that allow for the testing of self-driving vehicles. Ultimately, though, the federal government will set the rules that allow for the safe movement of autonomous, 80,000-pound trucks across the country. Self-driving trucks will be regulated by the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In September, the House of Representatives passed a bill that will lift many restrictions on introducing self-driving cars to the nation’s highways. The U.S. Senate is considering a similar measure. While automated commercial trucks are not currently included in those bills, they could be added to a different piece of legislation.

Not including heavy-duty trucks in a sweeping self-driving vehicle bill would be a setback for truck manufacturers. Companies like Daimler and Uber (which owners self-driving truck maker Otto), could still develop new technology, but would be limited to testing those trucks in the handful of U.S. states that currently allow them.

Driving a Heavy-Duty Truck Requires Skill and Intuition

If you have driven a commercial truck, you understand how challenging it can be. Can a robot mimic the complex maneuvers truck drivers must make to weave their way through a busy port or back up to a loading dock? Even on an Interstate, will artificial intelligence be able to negotiate construction zones, mountain passes or bad weather?

“What happens if a steer tire blows out? Humans are very good at intuitively assessing a situation and responding. Computers need to have all that lined up for them, all those edge cases,” Derek Rotz, director of advanced engineering for Daimler, told Trucks.com in June.

Someday, machines may be sophisticated enough to handle all the nuances of driving a heavy truck. That breakthrough is likely many years away, however.

Self-Driving Trucks Will Need Someone in the Cab

Most experts agree that the level of automation for heavy-duty trucks will come in pieces over the next several years. Once autonomous trucks take to the roads, they will still require tech-savvy drivers monitoring the controls. For example, a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, which could be rolled out commercially in the next three or four years, can drive itself in most situations, but will need a human to take the wheel in the event of bad weather or construction. A Level 5 autonomous vehicle, which the NHTSA describes as one that needs no human help, is still many years away from becoming commercially viable.

Autonomous Trucks Should Help Drivers

Long before robots take over all the driving duties, autonomous technology will actually assist human drivers. Systems for collision avoidance, stability control and lane departure warnings should make driving a big-rig safer and more efficient. Some experts see the truck driver of the future as being more like an airline pilot: he or she can let the truck’s system handle long stretches of highway driving, but must take over during pick-up, delivery and other, more complex situations.

Trucking is a Vast Industry

There are an estimated 3.5 million Class 8 trucks on American roads today—and over 5.7 million commercial drivers. There are more than 210,000 trucking companies, most of which are small fleets or owner-operators. American Trucking Associations (ATA) projects that 15.18 billion tons of freight will be moved by trucks in 2017. That figure is expected to increase 36%--to 20.7 billion tons—by 2028.

In other words, even when the technology is available, it will take self-driving trucks many years to penetrate such a large, complex industry. Also, different types of trucking modes and freight may require different kinds of self-driving technology. Chris Spear, the ATA’s president who also serves on a DOT committee exploring self-driving technology, has said it will be 20 to 25 years before fully autonomous commercial trucks are widely used.

“I think you’re always going to need drivers in the trucks in the cityscapes, doing pick-ups (and) deliveries,” Spear told a committee of lawmakers on Capitol Hill in late 2016.

Sources: Trucks.com, The Hill, Overdrive, ExtremeTech.com, Bloomberg, Heavy Duty Trucking