Once, it seemed like a future only possible in the movies. Now, autonomous vehicles stop when needed, scan for exit ramps and detect traffic changes ahead. Driverless technology can improve safety in passenger automobiles, but how will it affect trucking? With more than three million truck drivers in the United States, there’s plenty of concern. Explore the technology already available to truck drivers and ways robotics may affect trucking in the future.
Current Truck ADAS
Consumer vehicles already use a variety of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). Commercial vehicles are much larger and heavier than automobiles, and they spend more time on the road. One of the most widely used ADASs in commercial vehicles is an aftermarket camera system that offers drivers a better view of their surroundings.
Japan recently subsidized the purchase of systems with collision and lane departure warning, and U.S. government officials are attempting to adapt similar legislation that provides a tax credit for commercial ADAS. The European Commission favors fitting commercial vehicles with advanced emergency braking systems.
Chinese startup TuSimple partnered this year with Shaanxi Automobile group to equip trucks with self-driving technology. The company plans to use drivers in the early stages of development, then switch to trucks that are fully autonomous.
The American Trucking Association calculates average driver pay and other labor fees make up around 40 percent of trucking companies’ revenue, even more for carriers that are less-than-truckload. Self-driving trucks, while expensive to purchase, could result in significant savings.
Trucks or Commercial Vehicles First?
Some experts predict passenger vehicles will continue to supply innovations that can be adapted to the trucking industry. Darren Gosbee of Navistar International Corp., said it is unlikely commercial vehicles will lead the way in the development of autonomous technology.
Others point to the difficulty in attracting and keeping qualified drivers and the spike in driver shortage expected to occur in the next seven to eight years. They worry that as current drivers retire or change to jobs in other industries, new recruits will have less time on the road, resulting in higher crash rates.
They feel the commercial market will have more incentive to add autonomous driving technology, since the cost savings makes the added expense worthwhile. One mobile workforce solutions provider points out a single autonomous vehicle can do the work of five people.
Countdown to Autonomy
Industry speakers at this year’s Automated Vehicle Symposium predicted commercial vehicles could be available with Level 4 autonomy in as little as three or four years. Level 4 autonomy means trucks could drive themselves in some situations but would still need a human driver in unexpected circumstances such as bad weather or road obstructions.
Manufacturers are still working to overcome challenges to which human drivers respond intuitively. The director of advanced engineering for Daimler Trucks of North America said they’re not rushing in to robotics. If a tire blows out or time has worn away lane markings, human drivers adapt. Unexpected events for a self-driving truck could be disastrous.
In the meantime, manufacturers continue to incorporate features that make driving safer. Volvo’s 2018 long-haul truck offers safety features including automatic emergency braking standard on each vehicle. As technology improves, organizations will replace old trucks with models that have computers to aid in the driving.