In the past few weeks, there have been strong signals put out by industry experts that Level 4 autonomous technology may not arrive as soon as some of the more optimistic forecasters have predicted in the past.
Most noticeable was an interview I did with autonomous technology pioneer Anthony Levandowski a couple of weeks ago. Levandowski is still a long-term believer in the eventual deployment of Level 4 autonomous trucks – but is now concentrating on more short-term developments with his new startup company Pronto AI.
And then last week, at the HDTX Fleet Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, Jeff Sass, Hendrickson’s new vice president of marketing, referred to autonomous technology as a “pipe dream.” It’s worth noting that, until recently, Sass was senior vice president of sales at Navistar. So, he’s a guy who’s clearly been tracking the evolution of this technology closely and trying to figure where it's headed and when it’s going to arrive.
Of all the major North American truck OEMs, Navistar, it should be noted, has shown the least public interest in autonomous technology. Compare that stance with Daimler, for example, which is currently equipping its latest generation of Cascadia tractors with a full suite of Level 2 autonomous vehicle systems. And then you have startups like TuSimple actively running trucks on real-world routes in autonomous mode, aggressively pushing the envelope in terms development and acceptance of autonomous trucks.
So who’s right?
Well, both parties are, in my estimation.
I’ve said repeatedly that I believe autonomous technology will be more comprehensive – and arrive sooner – than many industry experts currently believe.
And I’ve also said that I believe that early, Level 2 and Level 3 autonomous systems, will be extremely popular with professional drivers, because they will deliver a revolutionary transformation in terms of driver comfort, safety and efficiency.
And I think that’s kind of where we are at the moment in terms of adopting autonomous technology.
Even though these vehicles are clearly capable of making drives through very dynamic road environments completely under autonomous control, it never made sense to make that the goal of the technology right out of the box. Experts like Levandowski hitting the “Pause” button is really just an acknowledgement that autonomous vehicles are still operating basically on their own, in a highly dynamic space where they are vastly outnumbered by human drivers who – as we all know – cannot be counted on to behave rationally at all times when they’re driving.
Autonomous vehicle systems currently have to track behavior and continually update algorithms designed to help them make predictions on behavior in an environment where the rule book is constantly being tossed out the driver’s-side window by the humans in the vehicles around them. The organic computers in our heads do a remarkable job functioning in those commonplace chaotic conditions. But it’s an incredible challenge for the current generation of vehicle computer systems to get right.
Then again, limited autonomous vehicle systems like Lane Keeping Assistance, Predictive/Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Mitigation, and others are doing a fabulous job concentrating on the very dynamic environment I just described, but in a way that augments the information a driver is taking in and helps them make better decisions in that space. Moreover, these systems are already allowing drivers to surrender control of some more mundane operations to a computer, easing the constant stress that often comes with driving and allowing them to focus more on larger, more immediate safety and driving situations without any corresponding degradation in safety.
Two things can be true at once. And I think that sums up the state of play for autonomous technology now.
There is still a lot of work to be done before we’ll see robot trucks roaming the country without any humans onboard. But the systems that will one-day lead to those robot trucks are already starting to make life easier and safer for professional truck drivers.
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