That’s the question I get most often when I’m talking about autonomous trucks. Everyone wants to know when they will enter production and start hauling freight.
Actually, you can buy and install retrofit autonomous control systems for trucks today. So, what people really want to know is when they’ll see a Level 5 autonomous truck without a human driver onboard out running the roads in the wild.
At the 2015 launch of its first autonomous truck, the Inspiration, Daimler Trucks North America said that it would be at least 10 years before autonomous trucks were ready for fleet operations. So maybe we’ll see the first self-driving trucks come to market in the next couple of years.
Or maybe we won’t.
Getting autonomous trucks ready for fleet operations has proven to be a bigger challenge than many of the technology’s developers seem to have initially anticipated. The news is rife with stories of autonomous technology companies downsizing, laying off employees or going out of business altogether.
And even the most optimistic proponents of autonomous trucks note that when they eventually come to market, they’ll be largely limited to operations in the Southwestern United States for the foreseeable future. That’s because the current sensor and camera technology used to help the truck “see” the outside world is particularly susceptible to mud, dirt, snow, ice and fog – the sorts of mundane, real-world stuff that pile up rapidly in, say, Massachusetts in February.
Let’s not forget about the legislative side of autonomous truck operations, as well as the prickly pear of public opinion. Both remain sizable hurdles that will have to be overcome before we see large numbers of self-driving trucks out on North American roads.
What Would Happen if Autonomous Trucking Fails?
So, what if it doesn’t happen? What if autonomous vehicle developers – or our society — eventually decide that Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous trucks just aren’t safe enough for public roadways. Have all the billions of dollars invested and the untold hours of R&D work done over the last decade just been wasted?
In a word. no.
Right now, autonomous vehicle system developers are working on technology that basically requires the truck to operate almost completely on its own when its out on the road. Outside of real-time GPS data, it primarily gathers information about its operating environment from its radar and lidar sensors and camera systems. There is no outside information from other vehicles on the road, or structures along the route, such as “smart” guiderails, lane markers, traffic lights or road signs to help the truck along its route.
So, one possibility is that society might decide to shelve autonomous vehicle deployment until we have smart road infrastructure in place, and a large population of connected vehicles on those roads to help them operate safely.
Safety Technology for Human Drivers
In the short term, I think the benefits of autonomous vehicle research are going to be more immediate with more profound benefits for human drivers.
Even if autonomous trucks don’t go to market in the next five to 10 years, the technology that has already made their tremendous capabilities possible is already being adapted and fine-tuned to help human drivers be safer and more productive on the road. I’m convinced that many of these systems, such as lane-keeping and lane-changing assistance, merging assistance, lidar, radar, camera systems, adaptive/predictive cruise control and electric steering systems will all be commonplace – if not mandated – technologies on trucks (and passenger cars) in the very near future. These are autonomous control systems that directly help human drivers.
As economies of scale come into play, I would not be at all surprised to see the trucking industry invest big in them to help protect drivers, the motoring public and their own bottom lines.
An Autonomous Future
The more likely scenario, I think, is that we’ll soon see limited, cautious deployment of Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous trucks in the American Southwest coupled with high take-rates for human-focused autonomous safety systems in parts of the country where human drivers are still mandatory.
Either way, I feel confident saying that trucking’s future will be an autonomous one. The only questions are when, and to what degree will this technology take hold?