Shaping the Future: Autonomous Trucks

A little less than a year ago, we were talking about why the human touch isn’t dead, especially when it comes to customer service and freight shipping quotes. Technology exists to make our lives easier, safer, and more productive, but many people have ideas of what shouldn’t. Sure, I would trust a robot or artificial intelligence to turn on the lights in my house, make snacks in a factory, start my car, or even build my car…but when I first started hearing about autonomous trucks, I tried to imagine what could be the future of transportation as we know it.

In 2017, we’ll dive a little deeper into some of the emerging technologies, touching on anything from self-driving trucks to drone delivery. The reality we are facing now is that robots could very soon play an integral part in delivering goods to stores and front porches around the world.

What Exactly is an Autonomous Truck?

If you hear “autonomous truck” and your first thought is “Optimus Prime,” don’t worry, you’re not alone. While the technology behind an autonomous truck is highly sophisticated, you won’t see these big rigs turning into out-of-this-world robot leaders. What you can expect is to see a handful of these trucks on major highways, with a driver on board to monitor the trip and to be on standby for potential emergencies. The one main difference you’ll visually notice is the driver of an autonomous truck isn’t touching the steering wheel.

The autonomous truck “Otto” made headlines in October 2016 when the truck made its first beer delivery for Budweiser. The truck drove itself 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, while its driver monitored conditions (and read magazines) away from the cab.

Google was the driving force behind Otto until Uber bought it in August 2016. Right now there are more than 30 big auto manufacturers and ride-sharing companies capitalizing on the development of autonomous vehicles. Tesla has been doing something similar with its Autopilot, equipping all vehicles with full self-driving hardware, which includes eight surround cameras and 12 sensors and radar to see its full surroundings.

How Does it Work?

Depending on the brains behind the operations, driverless trucks may have different types of functionality, but the main premise behind the technology is this: motion sensors, cameras, lidar (laser light), and software all work together to tell the truck to drive, navigate bends and bumps in the road, stay in their lane, and how to react to environmental changes.

It seems very simple. A driver gets the truck started on its journey, and then can essentially switch to “auto-pilot,” and be free to roam the truck while the truck continues to drive itself.  The computer system driving the truck can steer the wheel, adjust its speed, and brake, all while keeping a safe distance between the truck and other vehicles on the road.

Some systems can operate alone, while others are designed to operate together; two or three trucks connected wirelessly in a convoy. In April 2016, small convoys consisting of semi-automated trucks from six of Europe’s largest vehicle manufacturers made a groundbreaking voyage through the Netherlands using wireless “speech.”

Legislation Behind Driverless Trucks

In September 2016, the Obama administration issued its policy for automated driving, giving vehicle manufacturers guidelines to create technology to start the transition of “replacing” human drivers with computerized systems.  The Department of Transportation and the National Highway Safety Administration say these guidelines would reduce the number of roadway deaths as more than 94 percent of crashes in 2015’s data “can be tied to a human choice or error.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 2012, at least 34 states and Washington D.C. have considered legislation for autonomous vehicles, while nine: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia, and Washington D.C., have actually passed legislation related to driverless vehicles. In August 2015, Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order directing state agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads” within the state. A similar executive order was signed by Massachusetts’ Governor Charlie Baker in October 2016 to “promote the testing and deployment of highly automated driving technologies.”

While there have been no major announcements yet from President Donald Trump’s administration about this policy, the driverless car industry seems to be pleased with Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao.

When Will Driverless Trucks be the “Norm?”

While many companies are still in the developmental stages for their driverless cars and trucks, others are ramping up testing.

According to Otto’s developers, the truck is being tested on highways primarily, with the driver taking over in heavy traffic and for more difficult to navigate side roads. Uber says its goal is to develop a kit that would transform existing trucks into these self-driving versions, so existing carriers would be able to keep their original fleet.

Will robots replace the nearly 3.5 million professional truck drivers in America? Probably not in the near future. Developers say not even in the next decade, as drivers can monitor for potential issues, and can take over when it comes time to navigate narrow side streets or parking. A driver is still needed for the more personal things a truck just can’t do: filling out paperwork or unloading the vehicle.

So, it seems the human touch is still alive and well in the trucking industry, although the way that looks may shift over the next 20 years.

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