Commentary: The Reality of Autonomous Trucks

June 2015, - Editorial

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief
Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

Dear mainstream journalists, repeat after me: Autonomous trucks are not “driverless trucks.”

Ever since Daimler Trucks North America unveiled its Inspiration Truck last month in a big, splashy Las Vegas premiere with the general media invited, reporters have breathlessly and inaccurately thrown around the word “driverless trucks.” That despite the company’s emphasis that they are no such thing.

While the sci-fi fan in me is excited by these future-technology demonstrations, some of these writers need to take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines four levels of autonomous vehicle, ranging from 0 (no automation) to 4 (a truly driverless vehicle). The Inspiration Truck (and another autonomous concept truck Peterbilt showed reporters the day we went to press) are considered a Level 3 autonomous vehicle. There are multiple systems that allow the driver to cede control under the right conditions, but he or she must be ready to take back control at any time. (In fact, the Nevada regulations allowing for the license of the truck call for TWO drivers, just in case, but that’s likely temporary until the systems are more proven.)

I like to think of it more as cruise control on steroids.

Daimler Trucks North America officials stressed repeatedly that their Inspiration Truck is not “driverless,” and in fact they have no interest in a Level 4, totally autonomous vehicle. Peterbilt doesn’t like to call its truck autonomous; engineers there call it “advanced driver assist systems.” (And after all, if it’s assisting the driver, obviously the driver is still there.)

So if these trucks aren’t driverless, what, then, are the potential benefits?

Both Daimler and Peterbilt talked about the potential to reduce driver fatigue. Daimler said it already has done test-track research that appears to confirm this. If that’s the case, autonomous technology could lead to safer highways.

Safety was the takeaway of Brent Nussbaum, whose Illinois-based fleet Nussbaum Transportation works closely with Freightliner as a test fleet. I spoke with him after the Inspiration Truck unveiling to find out what the return on investment might be for such a system. Right now, he told me, lane departure warning systems can only warn drivers, beep at them or simulate the rumble strip feel in the seat. Sometimes, the driver is already over in the other lane before he can react. But Daimler’s automated technology keeps the truck in the lane for the driver.

We perhaps even could have more efficiency, Daimler said, if we could convince the government to give drivers of autonomous vehicles a little more legal time on the road. (Considering the fact that our current hours of service regulations are still locked in unending cycles of litigation, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.)

A much more likely development would be using this technology for platooning. By allowing two or more trucks to link up and follow each other more closely than would be safe without the near-instantaneous reaction of the technology, all the trucks in the platoon would burn less fuel.

A report on the first phase of research into the possible benefits of truck platooning technologies showed that all trucks in a platoon gained fuel efficiencies, with the lead truck gaining as much as a 5% improvement while the trailing truck got up to a 10% improvement.

Frost & Sullivan forecasts platooning will be introduced in North America around 2018 or 2019. Meanwhile, ABI Research predicts that 7.7 million truck platoon systems will ship by 2025.

So it’s exciting technology, no doubt. It will be interesting to watch over the next decade. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for flying cars.

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