Every time I post on antonymous trucks, I get dozens of emails from people telling me that self-driving trucks will not happen for at least 10 more years, if ever. People cite insurance, driving skills, city traffic, changing road patterns, faulty radar, etc.
My typical reply is things will likely happen far faster than even I envision. And so here we are, at least a year before I thought possible (but 15 years before some naysayers thought).
First Real Road-Legal Autonomous Big Rig
TruckYeah reports Freightliner Just Revealed The First Real Road-Legal Autonomous Big Rig.
The Freightliner "Inspiration Truck" will be the first autonomous commercial truck to drive on American roads. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Daimler Chairman Wolfgang Bernhard just bolted on its Autonomous Vehicle license plate to prove it's the real deal, and it's already been spotted in action.
In a Q&A session going on right now, Bernhard has explained that the Inspiration Truck will still have a driver, but that person's purpose will be solely to monitor the truck's systems and intervene in the event of a malfunction.
The truck requires no special hypothetical infrastructure, and it's able to read road signs and traffic signals on its own.
Nevada License AU 010
World's First Self-Driving Semi-Truck Hits the Road
Wired reports World's First Self-Driving Semi-Truck Hits the Road.
License plates are rarely an object of attention, but this one's special--the funky number is the giveaway. That's why Daimler bigwig Wolfgang Bernhard and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval are sharing a stage, mugging for the phalanx of cameras, together holding the metal rectangle that will, in just a minute, be slapped onto the world's first officially recognized self-driving truck.
The truck in question is the Freightliner Inspiration, a teched-up version of the Daimler 18-wheeler sold around the world. And according to Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, it will make long-haul road transportation safer, cheaper, and better for the planet.
A Newish Kind of Semi
The Freightliner Inspiration offers a rather limited version of autonomy: It will take control only on the highway, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles and staying in its lane. It won't pass slower vehicles on its own. If the truck encounters a situation it can't confidently handle, like heavy snow that covers lane lines, it will alert the human that it's time for him to take over, via beeps and icons in the dashboard. If the driver doesn't respond within about five seconds, the truck will slow down gradually, then stop.
The Freightliner is still very much a test vehicle. Daimler's confident it's safe for public roads, and the Nevada DMV agrees. But the automaker needs a few million more test miles on the books, in a wide variety of locales and conditions (snow, rain, extreme temperatures), before it's ready to offer even this very limited autonomous capability to any customers. That'll take a decade.
Humans Don't Want These Jobs
Another point in favor of giving robots control is the serious and worsening shortage of humans willing to take the wheel. The lack of qualified drivers has created a "capacity crisis," according to an October 2014 report by the American Transportation Research Institute. The American Trucking Associations predicts the industry could be short 240,000 drivers by 2022. (There are roughly three million full-time drivers in the US.)
That's partly because long haul trucking is not an especially pleasant job, and because it takes time and money to earn a commercial driver's license. The shortage will get worse, Perry says, thanks to a suite of regulations set to take effect in the next few years. A national database to collect company-performed drug and alcohol tests will make it harder for drivers who get in trouble at one job to land another. Speed limiters could keep trucks to a pokey 64 mph. Mandated electronic reporting of hours driven will make it harder to skirt rest rules and drive longer than allowed. These are all good changes from a safety perspective, but they're not great for profits.
Killing the Human Driver
The way to handle that growth isn't to convince more people to become long haul truckers. It's to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the role of the human. Let the trucks drive themselves, and you can improve safety, meet increased demand, and save time and fuel.
The safety benefits of autonomous features are obvious. The machine doesn't get tired, stressed, angry, or distracted. And because trucks spend the vast majority of their time on the highway, the tech doesn't have to clear the toughest hurdle: handling complex urban environments with pedestrians, cyclists, and the like. If you can prove the vehicles are safer, you could make them bigger, and thus more efficient at transporting all the crap we buy on Amazon.
The end game is eliminating the need for human drivers, at least for highway driving. (An autonomous truck could exit the interstate near the end of its journey, park in a designated lot, and wait for a human to come drive it on surface streets to its destination.)
Not a Decade Away
It should be perfectly obvious to everyone now this will not take a decade before such technology is mainstream. What's tested now will be routine two or three years from now.
When I first started writing about this, most thought we would not get to the testing stage until 2020.
The Last Mile
Please compare my thoughts from October 4, 2013: Never Has Arrived; The Last Mile to the section on "Killing the Human Driver" from Wired.
Truck drivers talk about how they can never be replaced because of city traffic, tight spaces, etc., etc. It's the "last mile" problem. One possible solution is automated trucking stations just outside major urban areas, where human drivers take over the "last mile".
Recall the "last mile" problem with high speed internet? It's been solved in numerous ways: DSL, Fiber, Cable, Satellite, Wi-Fi.
And so it will be with robot-operated trucking.
Automated trucking will not be here tomorrow, in the US, but it's coming far sooner than anyone thinks.
Not Just a Test
Wired says "The Freightliner is still very much a test vehicle. Daimler's confident it's safe for public roads, and the Nevada DMV agrees. But the automaker needs a few million more test miles on the books, in a wide variety of locales and conditions (snow, rain, extreme temperatures), before it's ready to offer even this very limited autonomous capability to any customers. That'll take a decade."
No it won't. Daimler says that to ease the fears people have of self-driving trucks. And once the safety record is proven, there will be no need for a backup human driver at all, at least for the highway.