When the Future Arrives

Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Trucking (part 1)

Anyone who has driven cross country has imagined operating a self-driving car. We picture ourselves flipping a switch and leaning back to take a nap, assuming that such technology must belong only in the movies. But autonomous vehicles are now closer to reality than ever before, and the trucking industry is poised to experience some real benefits from the technology.

Autonomous trucking poses a lot of questions for the industry, the government, and the public, however. What will happen to trucking jobs? What kind of regulations might be necessary in this new environment? And most importantly, how can we ensure safety for everyone who shares the road with these automated trucks?

In a short series of blog posts, we will look at some of the benefits and challenges of autonomous trucking.

 

What is AV (Autonomous Vehicle) Technology?

Let’s take a step back and define some terms. While “self-driving” or “driverless” cars are the first thing we think of when we talk about autonomous vehicles, in truth, there are actually five levels of automation in vehicle technology:

Level 1: Driver Assist: The driver has control of the brakes, steering wheel, and accelerator, but the automobile offers helpful information. Most late model cars on the road today have some driver assist features, such as cruise control and lane guidance.

Level 2: Partial Automation: Level 2 vehicles have driver assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control, parking line detection, and autonomous emergency braking. These autos still require a driver to remain in control of the car, however.

Level 3: Conditional Automation: A Level 3 automobile can operate completely on its own except under certain conditions. If weather or traffic conditions prevent the vehicle from operating safely, it will alert the driver so that he or she can take control.

Level 4: High Automation: Level 4 vehicles can operate completely on their own in geographical areas where they are compatible. They may occasionally need some intervention from a driver or operator.

Level 5: Full Automation: Vehicles at Level 5 can operate on their own without a human operator. No steering wheel or pedals are necessary. Currently, all Level 5 vehicles are prototypes or concept vehicles.

 

How Automation Applies to Trucking

With the unveiling of Tesla’s first fully automated semi-truck in 2017 (set to go into production this year), it’s inevitable that people picture the future of trucking as fleets of unmanned, 80,000-pound vehicles barreling down the Interstate! But right now, the trucking industry is looking more at incorporating additional Level 2 and 3 technologies. Current trucking automation is more accurately envisioned as a host of technologies that act like an airplane’s autopilot function. A driver still needs to be in control of the vehicle, but with a host of automated technologies available, operating the truck becomes a much safer, more efficient endeavor.

With the level of automation currently available, the trucking industry is on the verge of realizing significant improvements in:

  • Safety: Some automated features, such as lane guidance, are already making long-haul trucking safer. As trucks become outfitted with more cameras and sensors, features like automated braking will become common, potentially resulting in far fewer trucking-related fatalities.
  • Efficiency: Increased automation means that drivers can potentially operate trucks for longer periods of time, thereby reducing travel time. In addition, trucking companies will realize huge savings in fuel costs as trucks are able to “platoon.”
  • Driver satisfaction: Improvements in technology is bound to make long haul trucking more appealing to drivers as it will become easier and easier for them to stay in touch with friends and family on the road. With reduced requirements at the wheel, operators will have more time to pursue other interests—whether that means a Skype call with family or Instagramming a great picture from the cab of the truck. New technologies also mean more opportunities for drivers to learn additional skills and cross train for other positions in the industry.

 

But as with any technology leap, autonomous trucking presents a lot of questions and challenges. We’ll take a look at some of those next month.

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