Self Driving Heavy Commercial Vehicles: Ready or Not, Here They Come

In the trucking industry, the use of automated transmissions has significantly increased- in fact, they are now dominating many heavy truck OEMs’ order boards. As the use of automatic transmissions continues to rise, and automated consumer vehicles are working their way to becoming ubiquitous on the roads, how far off is the actual self-driving driving heavy truck, or, self-driving highway tractor from real-world, daily operation?

Frankly, there are situations in which reducing the human element in an activity can lead to improvement- hence the explosive growth of automated transmissions in Class 8 trucks. These changes contribute improved fuel economy, reduced driver fatigue, and the opportunity for drivers to be more focused and able to collect data that will improve the bottom-line. The saying goes that “trucks move America,” and if safety, efficiency, reduced traffic congestion, increased interstate utilization, and reducing driver shortage are results of the self-driving truck, how can that be a bad thing?

OEMs such as Freightliner in Nevada, and other third parties have automated trucks in real-world testing at this current time. As driverless technology advances and automated trucks accumulate test miles in varying conditions, environments and locations, self-driving trucks have the potential to be an amazing safety benefit. In 2012, 330,000 heavy trucks were involved in crashes, resulting in nearly 4,000 fatalities. Driver error was to blame for up to 90% of these accidents.

Advances in driverless technology may eventually lead to actual communication between heavy trucks and passenger cars on the interstates, resulting in less traffic congestion and better interstate utilization. All vehicles will be able to keep safe distances at a closer range with the assistance of radar technologies. Computers can process information more quickly, technology does not get tired or have emotional stress, it isn’t thinking about an upcoming meeting, it doesn’t get distracted by the kids fighting in the back seat, and it does not perform air drum solos to Neil Peart while driving. Incidentally, humans do all these things, along with attempting to remain focused on the road. When a situation presents itself, a human may overreact and become that one vehicle that creates traffic congestion or even causes an accident.

With the advent of driverless technology to the trucking industry, it is not hard to image larger trucks being able to move more freight with increasing efficiency. This would assist with the current driver shortage. In fact, operating from a self-driving truck could increase productivity for drivers as they would not experiences as much fatigue or tire as quickly. Imagine, with a long stretch of overnight interstate to drive and a full fuel tank, a ‘driverless truck driver’ could easily get 4 extra hours of sleep. Once a truck arrives in an urban area, the driver would need to take over, but they would be refreshed and ready to do so.

With cars such as the 2017 Mercedes Benz E Class able to drive itself on the interstate and constant technological developments, we may be seeing driverless heavy trucks out on the roads before 2020.

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