Companies such as Daimler are testing autonomous technologies. But how soon will they truly be commercially viable? Photo: Daimler Trucks

Companies such as Daimler are testing autonomous technologies. But how soon will they truly be commercially viable? Photo: Daimler Trucks

There's no doubt that research and development work on the building blocks of autonomous and automated truck techologies is proceeding apace. It was one of the key themes at the inaugural North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta recently. But it may yet be quite a while before people truly trust these technologies -- or before large numbers of fleets find them to be a worthwhile investment.

In Atlanta, up-and-coming technology was a key theme, including the building blocks and stepping stones of autonomous capabilties. But speaker after speaker emphasized their belief that autonomous and automated technologies will not replace drivers, but will make their jobs safer and easier.

Volvo, for instance, showed a video to reporters of an autonomous refuse truck being tested in Sweden. It maps the route the first time the driver drives the route, and thereafter it slowly reverses from house to house while the driver walks beside, emptying bins as it maneuvers around obstacles.

It was part of a presentation on the “future technology roadmap” by Keith Brandis, director, product planning, for Volvo Trucks North America. He referred to the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) definitions for levels of autonomy. “We've had Level 1 for many decades. We call it cruise control.”

Today, he noted, we have lane-departure warning, which will morph into automated lanekeeping.

Companies such as Wabco, ZF, and Denso, as well as the truck makers, are working on active steering technologies that can become lanekeeping systems.

Jon Morrison, Wabco’s president – Americas, told me in an interview, “As I've tried to remind everyone as I talk about autonomous, it's impossible to say when, but when we look at building blocks for autonomous, steering is the other key part of that" in addition to collision-mitigation and smart cruise-control technologies.

To that end, Wabco at NACV launched a new product, OnLaneAssist, which is moving to an active correction from lane departure warning, “Again, what I really try to stay focused on is when we can provide value and safety as an intermediate step on the way to get there, adding steering and integrating with the braking system – we use the lane departure warning camera to do that – we can help drivers at the end of the day," Morrison explained.

Active steering, which Wabco hopes to have in commercial use by 2020, is not just a building block to self-driving trucks – it does things like road crown compensation and wind dampening that greatly reduce the driver’s effort in fighting crosswinds and road effects.

When it comes to drivers actually being able to take their eyes off the road while that active steering keeps the truck in its lane and other ADAS technologies keep the truck a safe distance from vehicles ahead of it, Volvo’s Brandis said that there’s much more research to be done. “You want to know how the system is going to respond to all the variables that happen in a traffic environment. We also want to see if driver alertness can be improved. But we need many, many miles, in real life revenue-generating operations.”

What happens when a vehicle cuts in front, or when snow obscures the sensors? "All these are challenges we as engineers admit we haven't figured out, but that's OK," Brandis said. "In the end, the customer has to be convinced of the productivity and safety gains before they will make the investment. The technology is not cheap. By working with selective customers on pilots we will find the value proposition we need to hit in order to make autonomous vehicles the future.”

However, Volvo officials emphasized that they “do not see a world that does not have professional truck drivers.” As Göran Nyberg, head of VTNA, pointed out, aircraft have been using sophisticated autopilot systems for many years. But “when an aircraft needs a pilot, it really needs a pilot, and that goes for the trucking industry as well.”

Navistar Chairman, President and CEO Troy Clarke testified on Capitol Hill in a Senate hearing on autonomous trucks, and reporters asked him about that during a press conference at NACV. He pointed out that many companies are developing the “building blocks for autonomous vehicles when and if it ever comes.” Platooning, for instance, uses many of these technologies. “Everyone has their oar in the water, we're all running trials.”

Indeed, Daimler Trucks North America announced at NACV that the company has been testing advanced platooning systems on public roads in both Oregon (near Portland, where the company’s North American headquarters is located) and in Nevada, which was an early adopter of autonomous vehicle regulations in 2014. And Volvo recently was involved in federal testing of three-truck platoons on a Virginia Interstate.

Like Volvo’s Brandis, however, Navistar's Clarke noted that real world adoption will mean customers have to see a real benefit. “Like a lot of these product offerings, even the most advantageous technology goes through a very deliberate adoption rate in commercial vehicles. You’ve got to worry about residual values, are we delivering value for the customer. I would anticipate we’ll all be in the market at the end of the decade with a viable platooning option and will let the market tell us how valuable those might be."

Clarke said what he walked away from the Senate hearing with was “how pervasive the safety argument is for these [advanced driver assistance systems]. The thought process around how we could reduce traffic deaths significantly seems to be gaining a lot of momentum around the world, and rightfully so, and this technology is the tip of the iceberg.”

Public acceptance

Roughly two-thirds of Americans would feel unsafe sharing the road with autonomous freight trucksEven so, a lot of people will still feel more comfortable with a human behind the wheel. In a recent Pew study, when asked for their views on how long it will be before most vehicles on the road are autonomous, a majority of Americans (56%) anticipated that this will happen in the next 10 to 49 years. Roughly one in 10 (9%) expected that most vehicles will be autonomous in fewer than 10 years, but a comparable share (8%) expected that this outcome will never happen.

More Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about the development of driverless vehicles: 40% are at least somewhat enthusiastic about this development, while 54% express some level of worry. 

Just over half (56%) of Americans say they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle if given the opportunity, while 44% say they would do so if they had the chance. Some 42% of those who would not want to ride in an autonomous vehicle express a general lack of trust in the technology or an unwillingness to cede control to a machine in a potentially life-or-death situation, while another 30% specifically mention safety concerns of one type or another.

Slight majority of Americans would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle if given the chance; safety concerns, lack of trust lead their list of concerns

Many of these respondents express doubts that machines could ever handle the unpredictability inherent in driving; worry about ceding their agency to a process they do not fully understand; or simply view humans as uniquely well-prepared to handle unexpected situations on the road:

“I don’t even like being a passenger in a driverful car.” – 43-year-old man

“I believe that judgments rely on human sympathy and feeling, rather than on the calculations a machine would make. Do you swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting an old guy in the crosswalk?” – 64-year-old woman

However, many of those who said they would ride in an autonomous vehicle said they believed the safety would be better, not worse.

“Take out the ‘human error’ factor and the frequency of accidents will plummet.” – 54-year-old man

The survey found that 87% of Americans favor (with 53% favoring strongly) a requirement that all driverless vehicles have a human in the driver’s seat who can take control in an emergency situation.

Betting on Trucking

And finally, a word from Warren Buffett. His Berkshire Hathaway announced a deal on Oct. 3 that will make it the majority owner of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain by 2023, a move that, as David Kiley of Forbes put it, “flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that soon autonomous trucks won’t need to stop or gas up as often as they do now.”

Kiley reported that Buffett “sees the future of the chain as not only a stable source of revenue from the existing gasoline and diesel-powered truck fleet, but as a logical network of electric-vehicle and natural-gas stations for what is sure to be a growing number of EV and NG car and trucks on the road.”

Buffett’s betting on the American trucker. If you can’t believe the “Oracle of Omaha,” who can you believe?

Related: Senate Panel Hears Pros and Cons of Autonomous Trucks


Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge


Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

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Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

View Bio