Over the last year, the media has been trumpeting the arrival of “self-driving trucks” at high volumes more typically associated with brass bands at Munich’s Oktoberfest. Delving beyond the headlines, where is the autonomous truck in terms of its evolution and what is its likely impact on truck drivers?
Autonomous trucks in the headlines
Recent examples of autonomous trucks making headlines include Volvo testing a self-driving truck in an underground mine last September. In January 2017, Volkswagen’s Scania signed a deal with the Singaporean government to trial autonomous truck platooning — in which a group of trucks, assisted by the latest sensor technology, travel in convoy, automatically, safely and a short distance apart – to carry cargo between Singapore’s ports on public roads (source 1.) The E.U’s European Platooning Challenge in April 2016 saw semi-autonomous trucks with drivers travel in platoons from various starting points across Europe to Rotterdam.
In the US, Silicon Valley start-up Peloton is developing two-truck, driver-assistive platooning. Another start-up, Otto, which has been bought by Uber, is creating technology that will convert existing trucks into self-driving ones.
Status of autonomous truck technology
Despite the red hot glow of interest in autonomous, self-driving trucks, the technology is still in its infancy in terms of transforming the concept to reality.
New advanced technology systems known as “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems” (“ADAS”) contribute to make truck driving safer and less stressful today. These include traction control; ABS brakes; electronic stability control; adaptive cruise control; telematics; sensors that detect obstacles and automatically activate brakes on a vehicle ahead of a possible collision.
Truck platooning will generate many benefits. However, before platooning becomes a day-to day-reality, there remain major technological and non-technological issues including regulatory, safety, infrastructure and political issues to be overcome. The problems faced by truck platooning are similar to those faced by autonomous trucks.
Autonomous trucks – still a long way to go
Torbjörn Holmström sums up the technological and infrastructure issues that are holding back autonomous trucks in a recent interview in Trucks.com. He was responsible for the development of autonomous trucks at Volvo from 1979 until recently and is now a senior advisor to the company. Holmström states that autonomous trucks won’t be realized until the end of the next decade i.e. 2030. He says “The software in the trucks still needs to be more powerful in terms of gathering data, analyzing it and making decisions. But beyond the trucks, there are infrastructure issues that need to be addressed, such as the design of roads and exit ramps, and the robustness of wireless networks.”
Impact on truck drivers
How will this impact on truck drivers? Truck drivers will remain central to truck driving for the foreseeable future even if their roles change over time.
Holmström continues “If you think we will not have truck drivers in the future, well, that is very, very far away. It’s important that we take cautious steps. Society and the greater population must feel very safe about it.”
Steven E. Shladover, head of the California PATH (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) research and development programme at the University of California, Berkeley believes that we are decades away from driverless trucks, citing security as a key challenge that will take time to overcome in an Atelier.net article.
Daimler’s top self-driving truck engineer Derek Rotz, who is in his early forties, told the Financial Times in March 2017 that he doesn’t expect fully autonomous trucks — the kind with no driver at all – within his lifetime.
Technology benefits truck drivers today
Thanks to ADAS systems and the slow adoption of technology for autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks, the truck driver can and will be able to drive more safely and with less stress over long journeys. The technologies will enable greater efficiency not only in terms of keeping trucks and trailers roadworthy, free of unexpected breakdowns but also in terms of more effective management of cargo delivery. The role of the driver will naturally evolve. For career success, the driver will need more knowledge of technology.
Flexible trailer capacity, trailers equipped with the latest technology – the keys to success
Whether or not the world is ready for semi-autonomous or autonomous trucks, there will always be demand for transporters to carry large volumes of products in their trailers. Having flexible trailer capacity with trailers that are equipped with the latest trailer technology are the keys to playing a successful part in the transport industry.