Autonomous Trucking: The Future of Industry

From drones to robot-assisted surgical procedures, it appears that which was once delegated to the realm of sci-fi fantasy is becoming increasingly mainstream.

One of the latest such innovations is the autonomous semi-truck, the newest installation in a lineup of autonomous vehicles to hit the road since engineers at Carnegie Mellon University rolled out the first in 1984.

The world’s first licensed autonomous semi-truck, called the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, made its debut in May 2015, driving across the Hoover Damn in Nevada. During this groundbreaking demonstration, a driver drove the truck to the edge of the bridge and then engaged a system called “Highway Pilot,” which is like the autopilot system in a passenger jet. The truck then took over with its automated driving, making its way independently to the other side.

In October, Anheuser-Busch oversaw the first commercial delivery made by a truck without a driver present in the cab. The vehicle took to the highway autonomously, delivering 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer in Colorado.

As more and more jobs are outsourced to technology, many employees across multiple industries are apprehensive their positions may be taken over by electronic counterparts. Should truckers —and fellow drivers — be likewise concerned about this latest invention in transportation?

Engineered by German automaker Daimler, the first autonomous truck was made based on the model of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025. According to Daimler, it covered more than 10,000 autonomous miles while being test-driven in Germany.

The truck had a bevy of sensors, including front-end radars that can see ahead over 800 feet and another radar to detect when other cars merge in front of the truck. It also contained stereo cameras that analyzed road markings, transferring this information to the steering mechanism. Like other autonomous vehicles, the truck knew and was programmed to abide by the rules of the road, including speed limits.

At the time, Daimler reassured in its announcement that drivers were still very much a necessity in the operation of autonomous on-highway commercial vehicles. The truck required the presence of a driver with a valid commercial driver’s license in the cab and on the gauges. The truck was also unable to perform certain maneuvers, like passing or lane changes. If the Highway Pilot system senses adverse driving conditions like nasty weather, it would ask the driver to take over the wheel.

Over the past two years, however, companies have been racing to produce vehicles with increasing levels of autonomy.

On Sept. 20, the Obama administration endorsed automated driving for the first time, releasing federal guidelines applicable to such systems. Per the LA Times, about 12 states have thus far created laws permitting the testing of self-driving vehicles. The Times clarified, however, that the federal government, via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is responsible for setting the rules to ensure such freightliners operate safely on U.S. highways.

Proponents for more autonomous freight liners argue that autonomous vehicles will increase safety on the road and decrease the cost of travel and transportation.

A 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that 333,000 large trucks were involved in traffic crashes in the U.S., and a 2009 Harvard School of Medicine study reported that truck drivers are often “chronically sleep deprived.” This is attributable in part due to the long days in high demands on truck drivers who often make continuous trips lasting several hours, sometimes even multiple days.

In terms of cost savings, the switch to automation is attractive to some industry leaders as it could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. Morgan Stanley estimated that the freight industry could save 168 billion annually, 70 billion of which would come directly from staffing reductions.

Despite apprehension among many transportation professionals, Otto, the manufacturing company that developed the Anheuser-Busch truck, contends that the switch to autonomous trucks could incentivize truck driving by making the job easier and safer. The company, which was purchased by Uber earlier this year, reassured that human truck drivers will still be needed for the safe operation of such trucks at least for the foreseeable future. On residential streets or other difficult driving areas, humans will need to step in and take the wheel. Likewise, truck drivers will still be needed for tasks like loading and be unloading the cab and filling out paperwork.

Otto later added that its system will likely eventually incorporate the use of a driver transporting the vehicle to “pick up and drop off locations,” from which point the truck could drive itself across long stretches of highway—like a tugboat. This may subsequently make it possible for drivers catch some much-needed shuteye during these lengthy courses while the truck takes over the wheel.

Yet, as demonstrated by the recent Busch delivery, the idea of an entirely driverless truck is not so far-fetched.

The full effect of autonomous driving technology remains to be seen. But with trucking the largest job market in 29 states—employing about 3.5 million truckers nationwide, it is sure to have a significant impact on the industry and local economies alike.