Numerous trailers, eighteen-wheelers, and buses provided with self-driving technologies will be riding highways in the next few years. Engineers expect autonomous trucks are going to be safer and less costly, but they are cautious as the technical challenges that face driverless juggernauts are a bit complex than the ones for self-driving cars.
Autonomous trucks will be more controversial than driverless vehicles if they do take hold the highways, as trucks are not just long cars. Companies need to prove that technologies implemented along the truck (like state-of-the-art sensors, forward-facing video cameras, and several LIDAR/RADAR systems combined with powerful processing bases and robust embedded code) can meet both experience and awareness of skilled professional truck drivers. Engineers must match the situational awareness when facing road hazards, environmental conditions, or other vehicle drivers.
Nowadays, there are two huge rationales to keep pushing autonomous trucks forward:
- Accidents reduction: US large trucks and buses are involved in +4,000 fatal crashes year over year and caused +90,000 injury crashes according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The Critical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows +90% of all accidents associates with some form of driver error, and about 1/7 fatal eighteen-wheelers accidents are due driver fatigue. Tests of autonomous trucks point the technology can mitigate mistakes; however, there is no way to know what fraction of those errors would be eliminated by driverless technologies or which new mistakes might appear.
- Profit increase: savings on fuel (it is about 1/3 of the cost of operating a long-haul truck) by keeping optional speeds and acceleration along the whole ride. In addition to cutting down on wind drag, using the syncing capabilities of the autonomous trucks to move together as a tight platoon over large lengths of the +164,000 miles of highways in the National Highway System.
Autonomous trucks are not replacing anytime soon the 1.8 million US truck drivers reported by the Bureau of Labor, but they are altering the driving job. The technology is a potential way for trucking companies to fill in for drivers who are not available, as the American Trucking Associations urged the 50,000 US drivers shortage and forecasted the need for almost 1 million new drivers over the next decade.