A view of future trucks, from a dozen years ago

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As we presently know it, autonomous trucking is not something I look forward to. Some folks seem pretty excited by the prospect, especially carrier accountants who write cheques to drivers, thinking that people won’t be needed at the wheel pretty soon. I continue to think that’s a dream, only that. The ‘soon’ part, I mean.

Or is it not so far fetched at all?

Interviewed about a dozen years ago by a former colleague, San Francisco futurist James Canton figured that we’d be well on our way to full autonomy by now. He was a bit optimistic about his timeline, but wait ‘til you hear what he saw in the longer term.

“I would say from 2020 through 2030, you’re going to end up with semi-autonomous vehicles where you’ll still need humans, not necessarily [as principal] drivers but drivers to take over in the event where the system either is not optimized on that route to be fully autonomous, or the infrastructure is not there yet. Or it could be for things like refueling, or it could be for security, or it could be just for being able to monitor things because insurance wants to have a human to pay attention to the machine and machines are also still learning to evolve to become completely autonomous.

data and highways
The data associated with autonomous vehicles could also see infrastructure reshaped. (Photo: istock)

“There will be routes between 2020 to 2025… that will be designed to be fully autonomous. In fact those are market drivers. Between certain cities there’ll be selected routes that will either be where trucks can [form] what look like trains and they will be shuttled, or there will be fully autonomous routes.

“Certainly by 2025 you’re going to have 10% to 25% of routes that you’re going to start to see an automated part of the route where you’ll have driverless trucks, driverless cars, and that will have a massive impact… Between 2025 and 2030 you’re going to see major routes that are fully automated if not before.”

Progressing technology

Interestingly, at the time Canton said that trucks hadn’t progressed all that much in the previous 100 years.

“There’s not an awful lot that’s changed since the Model T,” he said, bemoaning the fact that truck technology hadn’t progressed the way computing had. “You still have four wheels, you have an internal combustion engine; there have been certain efficiencies, but for all intents and purposes this design may look different, but the inner workings of it are pretty much the same. There has been very little change.”

He did acknowledge that truck technologies like advanced driver assistance systems had just begun to appear, and of course we know they’ve come a long way since then.

Two key “laws” would take us further, Canton said. One of them is known as Moore’s Law, as expressed by the founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, who said that every technology doubles yearly in terms of power, while also decreasing in price. Which means that trucks would get smarter, faster, and more powerful for half the cost.

Canton’s Law

I’m not sure that’s proven to be exactly true, but the next “law”, his own, is the more important one anyway.

Canton’s Law suggests that everything that can get connected will get connected. “Most of what you have inside of a truck is not really connected,” he said. “You’ve got autonomous systems that are really silos, that are starting to talk to each other. We’re starting to collect information but trucks don’t have brains yet. There’s a bunch of sensors that… pay attention to safety or fuel, the transmission, or GPS. But they’re not really all woven together yet.”

They will be, Canton said, “because the internet of things is a much bigger revolution … It’s a very important revolution, more things will get connected, so now all of a sudden what do you have? Well you’ve got a very different kind of truck. You’ve got a truck that has autonomous intelligence, it’s a smart truck… It has a brain.

“It has a cognitive awareness of what the truck’s purpose is for that particular mission. Is it to get to Winnipeg within X amount of time? Is it to offload these perishables by this date or before this event occurs? So there’s all this information, we call it big data, that’s now going to be available to the truck’s brain and that truck is going to be tied to the cloud. So you’re going to have big data constantly analyzing the market. All of a sudden the driver is going to get a communication saying, ‘Okay we’re coming out of Toronto, we need to divert and to get ready for a load that needs to be ready for Edmonton; wow that’s a long trip, how long will that take?’ All of a sudden now there’s a market opportunity.”

Autonomous economy

In essence the truck becomes part of a very different kind of an autonomous economy that’s going to make the carrier more money in a dynamic market that communicates with trucks. Like a load board in the cloud that the truck connects to automatically, whether there’s a driver or not. It would even calculate ROI on the fly. And thus make decisions as to what’s a viable load and what isn’t. On its own.

“When I consider this autonomous, global economy a critical part of it is going to be driverless trucks,” said Canton. “These trucks are going to have to morph. Some of these trucks are going to have to be able to fly; some of them have to accept drones; some of them are going to have to operate on trains. You’ve going to have to have what I call morphable vehicles that will be able to live in different environments — fly, swim, travel.”

Canton saw “…cities that will have circling automated trucks that will always be moving. They’ll be making pickups, making deliveries, and there’ll be delivery centres. So imagine a grid, automated smart grids that will have offload delivery areas in every neighbourhood and the automated systems will go to those, make deliveries and you’ll pick up your stuff down the road. Most manufacturers are getting ready for that right now.

3D printing and trucking

“By 2050… trucks will be fully autonomous, no humans. Trucks will be monitored by other artificial intelligences, not by humans. Trucks will be manufactured by 3D printing; we’ll be making trucks on demand… distributed wherever you are in the market place.”

And how about this vision? Canton saw trucks being mobile factories, making their cargo en route.

“What’s going to be inside the trucks? There’ll be nano fabricators tha,t as the truck is moving from place to place, they’ll be actually producing the products that will be sold. They may be producing food products, they may be producing industrial products, so in the time it takes to get from where the truck is manufactured in a 3D factory, to when the truck gets into Vancouver to make the delivery, the nano factory inside the truck actually produces the product and then makes the delivery… Top of the truck opens up, the drone comes out and makes the delivery.”

Obviously, in Canton’s view, trucks of the longer-term future won’t look like trucks at all.

“We’ll still affectionately call trucks trucks, but they’ll be intelligent entities with brains to be able to make decisions,” Canton said. “And humans will not be involved in the supply chain.”


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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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  • Should be interesting. What happens in the bush,or snow covered roads, or in mines where trails keep changing. What happens when it spins out? Who’s going have to chain up. This could be hilarious. Especially if it is violation and the DOT try to pull it over.