While science fiction fans still await flying cars, driverless or “autonomous” vehicles are quickly becoming a reality on the road. Sci-fi fans are thrilled, but the rest of us, not so much. The idea of freight-hauling tractor trailers rolling on US highways driver-free is absolutely frightening to most people.

But with an 81% turnover rate, and companies not replacing drivers fast enough, how is freight going to be moved from one place to another in the US?

Enter the driverless trucks.

Last year, a fleet of semi-autonomous “platooned” trucks drove across Europe, successfully completing a real-time road test. These trucks were traveled two to three in a group following a human-controlled lead truck. The wi-fi connected vehicles maintained a consistent speed throughout their journey and reduced fuel use as much as 15%. Despite their use of autonomous technology, they trucks weren’t truly driverless—there were humans on board.

Will companies lay off drivers in favor of self-driving trucks next year? Certainly not. But with the rise of autonomous vehicles on the near horizon, it is important to consider how the industry will adapt.

There are certainly benefits to autonomous vehicles: they may increase fuel efficiency by as much as 10%, and can be safer as well, with the ability to detect obstructions on the road and automatic braking systems.

But while the vehicle technology will be available soon, the roads themselves aren’t ready for autonomous trucks yet. Unlike self-checkout kiosks at Walmart, the infrastructure changes needed to enable autonomous trucking will be massive. Roads will have to be re-built, and road markings and signs will have to be standardized, requiring a major investment of time and expense to reconfigure.

In addition to road infrastructure, Congress will need to pass legislation to bring autonomous vehicles into the industry’s regulatory framework. All together, we are certainly looking at a years-long process before our physical (and legal) infrastructure is ready for autonomous trucking.

What does all this mean for today’s over-the-road drivers?

First of all, massive driver unemployment will not happen overnight. But it does mean that when a driver is fatigued, “autopilot” can be engaged, allowing the driver required non-driving rest time while the truck drives on its own. When the driver’s primary task is taken over by the truck itself, it frees up the driver to focus on other tasks, such as at pickup and delivery points. At the same time, vehicles will almost certainly retain the ability for the driver to take over manual control when needed.

In addition, these “trucks of the future” may be able to drive though more difficult weather, or let the driver know ahead of time about impassible conditions. Rather than driving in full “autonomous mode,” the vehicle will use its sensors to aid the human driver in difficult conditions.

Daimler is leading the way with its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, which is now approved to drive in the state of Nevada. Working with a company called Pelaton, Daimler is developing technology to allow the several platooned Inspiration vehicles to haul multiple loads with just one in-cab driving attendant. Inspiration is still in the test stages, and only approved to drive in Nevada, but could be a full production vehicle by 2025.

The article describes how the Inspiration works with the driver, without replacing him:

The Daimler Freightliner trucks are designed to cruise along in the right lane of the highway at a steady speed. The trucks still need a driver to pull to the left to pass slower vehicles, exit the highway, and navigate the crowded city streets of urban America. The driver will always be able to override the steering, brakes or throttle of the truck at any time. As of now, the Freightliner trucks can’t handle bad weather. If bad weather rolls in, the Freightliner truck will tell the driver to take over the driving of the truck.

Although Daimler hasn’t yet disclosed the Inspiration’s price tag, we can be sure that these robotic vehicles aren’t going to come cheap. Many companies are keeping their older rigs on the road, and aren’t in a hurry to upgrade, even for the benefits of automation. For trucks made after 2013, startup Otto does offer a $30,000 kit to retrofit a rig to become autonomous, but even with such an upgrade, a driver is still needed to pick up where the AI leaves off.

As mentioned before, with platooning there is still a human driver in the lead vehicle, and even with fully autonomous vehicles, a human will still be needed to back up, take over for turns and off-ramps, and keep everything working properly. Drivers will also remain as the first point of contact your customers see at delivery locations and terminals.

Autonomous trucks won’t be the norm anytime soon, and when they do, their arrival will not signal the end of driving as a viable career. Much like the PC replacing office typewriters, the driver’s role may change, but the job itself will not disappear. The “autonomous” part of driving a truck will be a technological supplement to driving, like automatic brakes in a car. The new technology will make driving easier and safer, and just might make the long stretches away from home a little easier.

 

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