Driverless trucks are already being tested on North American highways. With the use of autonomous technology participating Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM)s see their trucks as the wave of the future for truck transportation of freight.
Several OEMs are almost ready to deploy driverless commercial vehicles for highways. The industry intends for this technology to improve productivity, reduce fuel consumption, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and even solve the current commercial driver shortage worldwide.
Platooning Comes into Play
There is much talk of platooning tractor trailers with a driver in the lead truck followed by one or more automated trucks bunched close together to reduce the gap between them and effectively reduce the turbulent air drag on the convoy. It’s the same principle as that used by NASCAR race drivers called “drafting” to pull away from the pack while saving fuel.
Platooning will likely be used in long haul trips over frequently traveled routes on highways with limited access and it’s believed that it will help reduce traffic and lessen congestion.
It should be noted that driverless tractor trailers are far different from driverless cars. A loaded tractor trailer at highway speed covers much more ground while stopping. And when doing so it cannot maneuver around hazards as nimbly as a driverless car.
Therefore where autonomous cars use sensors to predict traffic patterns, trucks must use high powered cameras to see what’s happening farther down the road in order to lessen the likelihood of collision. The cameras input data into a computer that controls the functions of speed, steering and braking to avoid accidents.
Programming a truck to drive on a highway where most freight goes is found to be much simpler than programming a car that encounters different, sometimes random routes on city streets and traffic stops at intersections. The required technology will be ever changing for driverless cars and trucks. It’s a moving target as laws and infrastructures evolve.
Are Truck Drivers Going to Lose Their Jobs?
It’s entirely likely that some will lose their jobs. The very mature average driving age of truckers will force some into retirement. But truckers do more than just drive. And most companies testing their driverless vehicles are expecting to always have a CDL driver in the vehicle at all times in case of emergency.
Platooning is likely to cost some driver jobs as automated trucks follow a lead truck with a driver on board who supervises the entire convoy. It’s too early to tell what the average size of a convoy will be or how many drivers will be needed.
Traffic is never going to reach a time of complete predictability of situations on the road. There are infinite variables at play on streets and highways. And what about when maintenance and repair issues arise? Someone has to manage that scenario and it will be a highly trained and experienced commercial driver. Can we imagine a driverless truck fueling itself and checking fluid levels and tire pressures? Sensors can monitor fluids and tire pressures. But a driver must take charge of the situation to correct any faults.
Imagine instead a driver with much less driving to do with autonomous technology extending his or her actual workday by not driving all day. That can mean more time available to deliver more product without violating hours of service regulations. Productivity up, costs down, profits up. And safer roads for all of us, not just drivers.
Maintenance and repair shops may require more trained technicians as trucks are likely to be in use more than in present times resulting in more frequently required maintenance. Of course that will depend largely on freight volumes and on what level of automation of trucks is actually achieved.
Autonomous trucking is in its infancy. We do not believe there will be a mass exodus of drivers losing their jobs any time soon. We will not attempt to predict when we will see trucks with no human on board. Until we do we will continue to wave to professional truck drivers on the roads. Happy trucking, friends.