Remove humans from the design equation, and truck designs of the future could be radically different from those of today. - Photo: Audi

Remove humans from the design equation, and truck designs of the future could be radically different from those of today.

Photo: Audi

Have you ever given any thought as to how a full-blown driverless truck would look?

A truck without a human driver onboard would be a very different kind of vehicle from what we see on the road today.

I’m not talking about the autonomous truck designs we currently see. Those vehicles are, after all, simply conventional trucks, designed from the ground up with human occupants as a primary engineering consideration, with some experimental autonomous control systems added on for evaluation purposes.

No – I’m talking about a fully autonomous truck that has been designed from the very beginning with the understanding that a human being will be onboard the vehicle for less than 1% of its operational life.

A true robot truck, in other words.

Well, for starters, there won’t be a cab on such truck – or anything even remotely resembling a cab on the vehicle. On any given tractor-trailer today, essentially one-third of the overall vehicle configuration is devoted to keeping a human driver – and a passenger – comfortable and productive. In addition, the truck cab has to be arranged in a way to serve as a home away from home for long-haul drivers. All of that stuff – and all of that space and weight and materials – would suddenly be superfluous for an autonomous truck designer.

Stereo and infotainment system? Gone. Air-ride seats, large windows, dashboards, beds, storage spaces, work desks, TV nooks – all of that would be unnecessary and pointless on a truly autonomous truck. There’d be no need for a high-rise roof or skylights. Large, panoramic windows and windscreens and large rear-view mirrors would be gone. You could probably get rid of windshield wipers and wiper fluid as well.

I assume there would be some need to keep vital electronics systems at the correct temperatures to function properly. So there would still be a need for some sort of HVAC system. But it would clearly be scaled down significantly.

Likewise, you might need some sort of rudimentary jump-seat and steering wheel for the few times a human – a technician, most likely – needed to move the truck around. But, barring room – and windows – to accommodate that basic need, that’s all you’d need for human interaction with the vehicle.

All of the vital powertrain data would be captured, transmitted and recorded via telematics. So outside of a basic ECM access panel, you wouldn’t need all of the usual dials, switches, knobs, gauges or display screens that a truck today has in the cab. Something about the size of a tablet computer would be it – if that. In fact, a good Wi-Fi connection might be the only human-vehcile interface required at all.

And, of course, that means all of the front third cab structure of a modern tractor trailer (or half of a vocational truck) would be obsolete. This would free up engineers to do all sorts of interesting and innovative things with that space. Without humans to design around, more space could be devoted to carrying cargo. And that would be possible, since a considerable amount of weight would already be deleted from the vehicle design with the removal of all the creature comforts human drivers and passengers require.

Even vocational trucks, like this futuristic dump truck, would not be immune from dramatic design changes in an autonomous future.  - Photo: Scania

Even vocational trucks, like this futuristic dump truck, would not be immune from dramatic design changes in an autonomous future. 

Photo: Scania

Aerodynamic considerations would suddenly become the dominant engineering factor for the front end of a truck. Designers would be free to move engine, cooling, and exhaust systems around at will to accommodate new, highly efficient designs that would cut through the air like a scaled-up Ferrari or McLaren supercar.

All of these changes could affect trailer design, too. Obviously, there’d be the opportunity for more payload capacity and available cube space to add cargo. But, generally, I’d bet lower, longer and sleeker would be the primary design considerations for future trailers in an autonomous world.

In my mind, all of these changes would transform our current version of a tractor-trailer into something that more closely resembled a high-speed bullet train than a long-nosed big rig of old. But no matter where your imagination takes you in thinking about these not-so-distant future trucks, rest assured there is already a global army of vehicle designers hard at work on these new concepts and the radical new vehicles they will eventually spawn.

Author

Jack Roberts
Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

View Bio
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