Self-Driving Semi Trucks Could Arrive Before Cars
Most people have accepted by now that autonomous vehicles are coming. Since Google announced their self-driving car project in 2009 (which now operates as a separate company under the name Waymo), consumers are warming up to the idea of not seeing drivers behind the wheel of every car — but seeing an empty semi-truck cab hurtling down the road? That’s a different story.
Not only is this a likely sight in the future, though, but it could arrive well before self-driving cars become a commonplace sight on our roads and highways.
The Progression of Self-Driving Trucks
At first glance, it seems risky to try out self-driving vehicle technology on 40-ton, 18-wheel freight trucks. These vehicles often weigh 20 times as much as a passenger car, and they can do enormous damage in the event of a crash.
There are some compelling reasons, though, why it makes sense to see whether semi trucks can operate autonomously first. Most big-rig trucks drive long hauls on interstates, moving in mostly straight lines with few turns. They deal with relatively few pedestrians and cyclists, and the roads they travel on tend to be smooth and well-maintained. All of this makes for a much simpler job for a computer compared to, say, the typical daily commute of a city-dweller.
In fact, most existing self-driving technology concepts are based on hardware and software that’s tuned for patterns of highway driving. You can think of them as a more advanced form of current driver-assist options in cars, such as lane assist and adaptive cruise — only much more accurate due to the presence of multiple cameras, radar sensors, and lidar (light detection) systems.
Several freight companies are currently developing self-driving concepts, including Peterbilt, Daimler Trucks North America, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz. Last year, Nevada approved Daimler Trucks North America’s semi-autonomous Freightliner Inspiration Truck to drive on public roadways in the state.
Most companies with autonomous-truck concepts are seeking to debut them on public roadways within the decade. Of course, the designers of these vehicles still need to troubleshoot some inevitable issues, navigate industry regulations and technicalities, and log millions of test miles before self-driving trucks can hit the commercial market.
How Self-Driving Trucks Might Impact the Trucking Industry and Highway Safety
While many truck drivers may feel concerned about being replaced by a robot, self-driving truck developers are saying that won’t be the case — at least not in the foreseeable future.
It’s important to note that “self-driving” or “autonomous” don’t mean “driverless” in any of the upcoming designs for commercial trucks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) uses a numbered ranking system from zero through 5 to classify self-driving vehicles: level 5 is a fully autonomous vehicle that requires no human input outside of a destination (level zero is a non-autonomous car that only issues warnings to the driver). Current self-driving truck designs are classified as level 3, which still requires a human driver to be in the cab and available to take control under certain circumstances.
Wilfried Achenbach, senior vice president of engineering and technology for Daimler Trucks North America, notes the incredible difficulty in getting software to quantify and handle all of the input a human brain receives every 10 seconds while driving — everything from roadside signs, sights, and sounds to changing light and weather conditions.
“Software today is far [away] from being able to handle that,” he said in an interview. In fact, with many self-driving truck designs that are currently in development, the computer only handles the long stretches of uneventful highway driving. The human driver still needs to take over once the vehicle exits the freeway, during inclement weather, and for tasks such as parking and docking.
In the coming years and decades, as opposed to taking away jobs, self-driving trucks may enhance truck drivers’ experience at work by creating a safer and less-stressful environment. Autonomous trucks can take care of monotonous stretches on long routes, reducing driver boredom and fatigue. In fact, the team behind Peterbilt’s Freightliner Inspiration conducted research that measured brain activity in drivers operating autonomous trucks, and they concluded that feelings of sleepiness were reduced by 25 percent.
Since driver fatigue is a serious and deadly problem in the trucking industry, any step that reduces fatigue could create safety benefits for all on-road drivers. Self-driving technology could also combat health risks to truckers that stem from stress and sleepiness, and increase drivers’ productivity and positive outlook by allowing them to engage in other activities while on the road (within reason). From freight companies’ standpoint, businesses may see a significant upgrade in efficiency if drivers can work on other operational duties while traveling.
Another potential positive is that self-driving trucks might attract much-needed younger drivers back to the aging trucking industry. By upgrading freight-driving technology to improve safety and allow for multi-tasking, the field may begin to attract millennials and other younger adults who today see truck driving as a thankless job filled with repetitive driving and dangers posed by fatigue.
Despite all the promises that come with self-driving trucks, though, there will undoubtedly be safety concerns for years to come. It’s a question of when and not if the first autonomous truck crashes — either due to software error or because a human driver failed to pay attention and didn’t take over for the software when they were supposed to. When these cases happen, the Truck Wreck Justice legal team at Truck Wreck Justice will be there to fight for the victims of negligence, as we’ve been doing in the field of trucking accident law for two decades and counting.
Contact Morgan Adams If You’ve Been Affected by a Trucking Accident
If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash involving a large truck or bus, Truck Wreck Justice Attorney Morgan Adams is here to help. With years of experience and a sole focus on large vehicle cases, Mr. Adams is a powerful advocate for trucking accident victims and an experienced litigator who won’t hesitate to fight for your rights in court.
Please contact Truck Wreck Justice at (432) 265-2020 or fill out our online contact form if you need legal representation or assistance. We offer free, no-risk initial consultations to help you gain a better understanding of your legal options, and we handle cases on a contingent-fee basis, which means that you’ll only pay fees or case expenses if and when we achieve a monetary award or settlement on your behalf.
Berliner, U. (2016, October 13). For the long haul, self-driving trucks may pave the way before cars. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/10/13/497834498/for-the-long-haul-self-driving-trucks-may-pave-the-way-before-cars
Lockridge, D. (2015, July). Can autonomous trucks solve the driver shortage? Heavy Duty Trucking. Retrieved from http://www.truckinginfo.com/article/story/2015/07/can-autonomous-trucks-solve-the-driver-shortage.aspx
Markhoff, J. (2016, May 17). Want to buy a self-driving car? Big-rig trucks may come first. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/technology/want-to-buy-a-self-driving-car-trucks-may-come-first.html?_r=0