Driverless trucks are coming to a highway near you

By: Patrick Cummings

Image of driverless semi-trucks on the highway

On March 15, 2020, 60 Minutes ran a story about the future of driverless autonomous trucks. You can see the story here.

Spoiler Alert: Driverless trucks are coming, and they are coming soon. Some companies estimate that they will have driverless autonomous trucks on open highways as early as 2021.

How do driverless trucks work?

There are many established companies and startups that have entered the autonomous trucking arena. Each of their autonomous trucks contains highly secret technology, but all driverless trucks are equipped with an array of cameras and sensors. The cameras and sensors relay information back to the on-board computer that drives the truck and can make up to 20 decisions per second. These trucks can detect bad driving maneuvers from other motorists (quick brakes, cut-offs) and can make necessary adjustments.

Driverless trucks can transport goods 2x faster

A driverless truck obviously doesn’t have to comply with any of the driver rules of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, such as hours of service limitations. That means a driverless truck can make a cross-country trip in only 2 days instead of the 4 days it would necessarily take a human driver. The only time the driverless truck would need to stop is to re-fuel.

But there are major challenges for driverless trucks

The obvious benefits of driverless trucks don’t come without their share of downsides. For starters, this disruptive technology has the potential to displace the over 2 million truck drivers in this country. Widespread driverless trucks would mean career changes or unemployment for all truck drivers – one of the most common professions for Americans without a college degree.

Another major concern with driverless trucking is ensuring safety. Computers may be able to process things faster and more efficiently than the human brain, but computers are far from infallible. With 80,000-pound tractor-trailers, the stakes are raised.

Any minor computer glitch could lead to catastrophic events especially if there is no “backup driver” sitting in the front seat to step in if the automated truck miscalculates. In the 60 Minutes story, the truck drivers interviewed also questioned how driverless trucks can be expected to handle unexpected events like a police officer directing traffic following a crash in the roadway.

Another difficulty facing driverless trucks will be regulating the new technology. The Department of Transportation will have to work closely with motor carriers and technology companies to establish minimum safety standards governing driverless truck operations.

Historically, a pre-trip inspection of a truck involved the driver walking around the truck to check the tires, the brakes, etc. With driverless trucks, that physical inspection will need to be supplemented by a computer inspection by an experienced software engineer. 

What will autonomous trucks mean for highway safety?

The short answer is that we don’t know yet. Autonomous trucking companies have already been conducting test runs on open highways. Currently, there are no regulations requiring these companies to produce to the Department of Transportation the records or raw data from these tests.

As with any new technology, we would expect it to be years if not a decade before the efficacy and safety of these new products are known. In the meantime, it is important to continue to use safe driving strategies when driving around these massive vehicles – regardless of whether there is a driver or a computer behind the wheel.

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