For the past several years, stories about self-driving cars have predicted their arrival as early and inevitable. Are autonomous trucks just around the corner, too?
Truck manufacturers, although not facing the market pressure that automakers are, are moving ahead with design and testing of self-driving big rigs.
Miles to Go
Touted as bringing improved safety and reduced costs for the shipping industry, fully autonomous trucks are more likely to be many years down the road, says trucking company RTS.
Nearly one-quarter of the states have approved testing of autonomous vehicles. However, it is the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which will finally determine how self-driving trucks will safely ply America’s roadways.
The trucking industry today faces a number of challenges, including personal injury and property damage claims from collisions and Irvine truck accident attorney.
If predictions of self-driving trucks come to pass, it could result in the loss of more than a million truck-driving jobs. However, the advent of automated trucks is not likely to become widespread until many questions have been addressed.
Congress is considering legislation that would ease restrictions on nationwide testing of AVs. Heavy-duty trucks however, are not covered and would need a separate bill. Otherwise, full trials of self-driving trucks are limited to just a few states.
It is unclear if current levels of artificial intelligence can manage the complex maneuvers and situational awareness to safely operate a large commercial vehicle. An engineer with a truck manufacturer said that human drivers are very good at assessing a situation and safely responding; machines may not reach that level for some time.
The development of self-driving vehicles is coming in stages. NHTSA defines the first level as including a full-time driver with some machine assistance and progressing up through level 5, a fully autonomous vehicle with no driver.
An autonomous vehicle at level 4 is required to have a driver but much of the vehicle operation is done by machine. Level 5 AVs are not expected on the highways for many years
At level 4, operating self-driving trucks is comparable to flying a modern airliner. A machine operates the vehicle for long stretches on the highway with the driver taking over during bad weather or tight quarters at the depot.
In the meantime, development and testing of autonomous vehicles are driving ahead.
Voluntary Safety Data
At least 80 companies are said to be moving forward with development of autonomous vehicle capabilities, reports Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. However, only 20 companies have submitted safety test data under DoT’s voluntary guidelines.
The auto industry has pulled back from early expectations of fully autonomous vehicles and recognizes that much more work is needed before AVs can safely operate on America’s streets and highways.
The American Trucking Association reports that nearly every consumer good sold in the U.S. traveled by truck at some point. Of the 36 million trucks registered to a business, 3.68 million were Class 8 big rigs. Of the 297.6 billion miles traveled by registered trucks, 181.5 billion miles were racked up by tractor-trailer combinations.