Ever since Daimler Trucks North America debuted the first street-legal autonomous truck in the US, the Freightliner Inspiration in May 2015, the fleet industry has been buzzing about this new technology.
This week in Europe, six self-driving semi trucks platooned across western Europe, marking a major milestone in autonomous vehicle technology.
Although the idea of "self-driving" vehicles may feel a little sci-fi for some, autonomous operating technology has been adopted in a number of non-automotive forms: driverless agricultural machines, self-propelled vacuum cleaners and space-exploring robots. Also, the field of aviation has successfully relied on auto-pilot technology for many years.
None the less, many question the need for this technology and are left with many questions. How are autonomous trucks defined? How do they work? Does this mean they will be driverless? Are they reliable? Why would companies want to adopt this technology? What about the legality? Will this technology actually take-off anytime soon? We explore these issues and give you the lowdown on this phenomenon and it's implications for the industry.
Exactly what are "autonomous trucks"?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines vehicle automation using five levels ranging from "No Automation" (Level 0), to "Full Self-Driving Automation" (Level 4). While many types of vehicles on the market currently offer Level 1 - 2 automation with features such as electronic stability control or adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering, the Freightliner Inspiration is the first street-legal vehicle to boast Level 3 autonomy, which is defined as "Limited Self-Driving Automation". At this level, drivers can turn over all major driving functions and rely on the vehicle to identify when conditions require drivers to retake control, which is expected to only happen occasionally. So no, the Inspiration is not driverless.
What technology allows vehicles to function autonomously?
Vehicles get information from intelligent camera and radar technology, then algorithms make vehicles react accordingly. Advanced radar sensors detect the surrounding traffic and relay this information to the vehicle systems, which control the speed and steering of the vehicle. At the same time, 3D mapping technology ensures perfect navigation.
Why the need for autonomous vehicles?
While some people feel nervous about this concept, it should be noted that, according to Google, 94% of all accidents are caused by human error. Autonomous systems can help reduce this in several ways. Radars have the ability to detect "blind spot" traffic that could be difficult for a driver to see, as well as react faster to any unexpected obstructions that arise.
Proponents of autonomous trucks assert this technology could actually address a number of challenges in the trucking industry such as fuel costs, efficiency-of-service and driver shortages. The predictive technology can detect even slight changes in terrain and adjust instantly, which can produce significant fuel savings. Research conducted by companies such as Freightliner and Peterbilt suggest that autonomous vehicle systems help reduce driving stress and increase alertness during long trips. This in turn could allow vehicle operators to run for longer periods of time by reducing the need to stop, boosting fleet efficiency. So how does this help with driver shortage? This leads us to another common question...
Will this technology make drivers obsolete?
Probably not, at least not anytime in the next couple decades. One thing that all of the major developers have emphasized is that their vehicles are autonomous NOT driverless. Freightliner has publicly stated they have no interest in developing a Level 4 truck at this time.
So how does this technology propose to help reduce truck driver shortages then? Vehicles that boast autonomous operating capabilities greatly reduce monotony, and improve driver quality of life. Studies conducted by Daimler suggest that removing the task of steering can increase alertness by at least 25%. The ability to break the monotony of long stretches of highway by watching movies or surfing the web could help make trucking a more attractive career choice, attracting new drivers to the industry.
Is autonomous vehicle operation really safe? Is it even legal?
This new vehicle class has been in development for over 2 decades, and is expected to undergo even more real-world testing and research before any possibility of a launch. It should also be noted that many of the technologies creating autonomy are already being utilized successfully on Level 1 and 2 vehicles operating worldwide.
Champions of autonomous vehicle operation point to the successful use of autopilot technology by the aviation industry. As stated by Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and former U.S. Air Force general, in a speech at the 2015 ALK Transportation Technology Summit, “Once that jumbo jet carrying hundreds of people reaches 1,000 feet, the autopilot takes over; in fact, you don’t want the crew touching the controls at all in ‘coffin corner,’” he explained. This term refers to the difficulty of keeping airplanes in stable flight at high altitudes, where a change of just three degrees, up or down, said Rosenker, can cause the plane to stall.
At this point, the Freightliner is the only Level 3 commercial truck authorized to operate on US roads. However, a few states have specific requirements which would prohibit drivers from relinquishing vehicle control, such as removing their hands from the wheel, etc. So does this mean you can expect to see these trucks in your rearview mirror anytime soon? Not quite...
So when will this happen?
Daimler gaining a license to operate the Freightliner on US roads was likely just intended for the purpose of continued testing and development at this point. While Daimler has not confirmed any production dates for the Inspiration, statements from industry insiders suggest that the perfection of the technology needed to operate these vehicles is still a ways off, and some speculate it could be as much as a decade before these actually go into production. Although the timeline for adoption of these vehicles is unknown, some suggest that autonomous commercial trucks will enter the market before consumer automobiles. Research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that by 2035, about 182,000 Level 3 trucks could be sold globally.