When you hear the words self-driving semi-truck or driverless trucks you might think you’re talking about the future. You’d very much be talking about the present because driverless semi-trucks are here.
As an owner-operator or a truck driver, you’re probably wondering what that will mean for you. Is autonomous semi-trucks or self-driving semi-trucks going to take your job away? Are you going to have to buy a whole new fleet of semi-trucks that drive themselves?
The Key Players in the Self-Driving Semi Truck Game
Self-driving Semi-trucks are making their way into the game much more quickly in the past years than ever before. Automated trucks are going to be seen on the road, it’s just a matter of when. There are hopes that traffic will decrease, fuel efficiency will increase, and costs will lower. Whether those in the industry like it or not, trucking is advancing.
You know about Google, but you might not know about Alphabet. Alphabet is Google’s parent company, and Waymo is one of its subsidiaries. Unsurprisingly, Alphabet has its foot in the automated trucking game. You might have seen these trucks being tested out in Arizona or California without even realizing they were automated – almost. While the technology is being worked out, Waymo’s trucks all have human drivers to ensure that no accidents happen. They launched their trucks in 2018.
In 2014, Daimler entered the autonomous trucking game, one of the first of its time. Mercedes-Benz is owned by Daimler, so you might indeed see a driverless Mercedes freight truck driving along the road one day. They have plans to open a center in Oregon to develop their research further. Daimler also employs a human driver to sit in their trucks and make sure that the vehicle can safely exit the freeway.
As is the trend, Embark is working on automated trucking technology, but still has a human driver inside their vehicles. The thought behind this is to allow them to take up less of their time actually driving their trucks, and more time focusing on their deliveries. Like Daimler, the driver operates the car during freeway exits but can take a break on stretches of highway where the truck is automated.
Tesla vehicles aren’t just the sleek cars you see zipping down the freeway. In 2017, they released their version of a self-driving semi-truck. Tesla cars already have an autopilot mode, and the truck isn’t much different. But yet again, a human is still needed to drive Tesla semi-trucks. The driverless semi-truck brakes, steers, and accelerates on its own, but a human steers on more tricky maneuvers. They plan to start a system where a human driver is followed by automated trucks.
Most automated trucks use radar to detect where they need to go on their drive, but TuSimple employs a camera instead. According to them, the technology is more cost-effective and successful than radar technology. Their self-driving trucks too, use a human driver to supervise the drive.
The Problems With Self-Driving Trucks
As you might have been able to guess, one of the major problems with self-driving trucks: they’re not actually self-driving. Essentially every automated truck out there, no matter how advanced, needs a human driver to supervise any potential error that the automated vehicle could make.
Alphabet/Waymo has been working on its self-driving cars for nearly a decade. That many years of testing means millions of miles on the road. In that time, their car has been involved in only 20 accidents. Nineteen were the fault of other drivers, and only one was the fault of the car.
While this seems to be good news, there’s a huge difference between a small self-driving car and a fully automated truck. They have less maneuverability and much more potential to cause serious damage on the road due to their size.
Developers are also concerned with the sensors of automated trucks. They’re usually on the top of the truck’s cab, which means that they could be disabled by the sun. Weather and tight spaces are also a problem, as both can negatively impact the truck’s performance.
What’s Happening to Your Trucking Job?
The fear with automated trucking is naturally that human drivers are going to lose their jobs to machines. On the contrary, autonomous trucking might actually mean more jobs. It’s very apparent that human drivers are needed in these trucks, and even with advances in technology, automated trucks will still need a human on board in case things go wrong.
That just means that trucking jobs will likely look different in the future. There will be less long hours on open stretches of highway, and more maintenance and delivery.
When Will it All Happen?
There’s no doubt that these companies are trying to perfect their technology more quickly than their competition, the finish line might be further off than you would think. The technology is moving more quickly than laws, which complicates the process. Lawmakers need to catch up with safety and regulatory measures when it comes to self-driving trucks.
The projected timeline when we will actually see successful, self-driving trucks on the road is projected to be around the next decade. That means it might be ten years until you even see the first self-driving truck fully functioning on the road. Truck drivers and fleet owners need only not rest easy, but they should also get excited about the future of trucking.
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