Automation has its limits in trucking

The automation of trucking is happening at a more rapid pace than I ever would’ve thought possible. When Daimler demonstrated its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck in Magdeburg, Germany, in 2014, it said the technology could be commercially viable by 2025 if governments created the related legislative framework.

As we near that date, the legislative framework is not nearly in place, but the technology continues to advance.

The timeline Daimler predicted seemed a lofty ambition at the time. Yet, here we are with three years to go and look how far we’ve come. And it’s not just Daimler pursuing autonomous trucking.

Autonomous truck driving on road
(Photo: Daimler Truck)

It seems not a month goes by without hearing about another start-up joining the race to automate trucking, or a new test that’s been successfully completed under increasingly challenging conditions, further strengthening the viability of the concept of Level 4 autonomous trucking — the point where a driver’s mind can be “off” the task at hand.

But I think the pace of advances is going to slow as we enter the final mile, err, home stretch. So far, most testing has been done on fairly simple routes and in temperate climates, as it should be until the technology is proven. And most of it has been with a safety driver in the cab, which is also the prudent approach until every possible scenario can be accounted and programmed for.

But as we get closer to accepting the concept of Level 4 automation, no one seems to have an answer to some major complications that are revealing themselves. For example, if we’re to remove the driver from the cab, who will put out road triangles – as required by law – when a truck is disabled at the side of the road?

Sure, the truck can be safely brought to a stop and parked autonomously, but who then takes over in the moments immediately following such a situation? Or are we to believe automated trucks will be fully reliable and never experience a breakdown? These trucks will be much more sensor-laden than the ones we operate today, and breakdowns still occur. They always have.

Who will engage with an enforcement officer when a driverless truck is pulled over on the side of the road? Again, I have no doubt the truck itself will be able to recognize a Bear’s flashing lights and pull over, but who presents the requested documents?

Who will present the receiver with the bill of lading? Who will protect the load if cargo thieves park a vehicle in front of a truck to bring it to a stop so they can raid the trailer and make off with the cargo?

These are some of a driver’s everyday responsibilities that will be extremely difficult to automate. And I think that realization also resides in the brilliant minds of the engineers who have gotten us this far, this fast, in the race to automate.

“If you are entering the trucking industry now, you’ll be able to retire a trucker if you want to,” Wiley Deck, vice-president of government affairs and public policy for Plus acknowledged during a panel discussion at the Truckload Carriers Association’s recent conference.

So, why automate at all? The priorities for those seeking autonomous trucking solutions should be to enhance safety and to address the driver shortage not by replacing drivers, but by making the job more desirable and less stressful. Automation can help drivers operate more safely with less stress. Automation can take over the more monotonous parts of the driving job. Automation may even be able to improve fuel efficiency thanks to radar that can see and predict what’s happening further down the road than any human could.

Level 4 autonomous trucking may well become reality by 2025, as Daimler first predicted. But the day a driver is no longer in the cab to oversee the technology is much further down the highway. Drivers can’t be removed until someone figures out how to automate all of a driver’s many tasks that we rarely even think about.  

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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  • Auto braking is a disaster under certain circumstances. We to have well trained drivers and mechanics and people that can fix computers

  • Automation may take the task of driving away from the drivers, but there are many other tasks that automation needs to include and let’s be honest, we are not there yet.
    1) Loading and off-loading product
    2) Inspection of said product to insure it is correct and has arrived intact
    3) Fueling and General Maintenance
    4) Truck Repair ( have they created self-repairing trucks? )
    Perhaps those that drive the trucks should consider learning to fix them as well?