Autonomous trucks face sizeable challenges

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So what’s the deal with autonomous trucks these days? Will your trucks drive themselves any time soon? Will you be out of a driving job before you want to be?

It’s hard to find concrete answers, but it seems a little wind may have gone out of those sails in recent months. One major player, Waymo, has dropped out entirely, at least for the time being, while another big gun, TuSimple, looks like it’s retreating from the North American market and concentrating on its home turf, namely China. There are many other outfits that have attracted serious investment dollars, some of which seem to be treading water on the face of it, while others are gung-ho and bringing even newer technology to the game.

Aurora, with US$1.2 billion in liquidity, said late last year that they’d have driverless trucks on the road in 2024. Speaking on CNBC, company CEO Chris Urmson noted a huge demand for autonomous trucks by the biggest of fleets looking to double their profit because such trucks can do twice as much work. Blowin’ smoke? Not sure, because everybody in this game is a salesman.

Waymo Via
(File photo: Waymo)

The American public is growing more and more wary of the whole autonomous idea, by all accounts, especially the idea of full automation at SAE Levels 4 and 5 in both cars and trucks. Level 4 for trucks usually demands a so-called “safety driver” in the cab who can take over as necessary, though the truck is capable of almost all functions on its own. Level 5 needs no driver at all. A recent survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA) shows that 68% of people are afraid of self-driving vehicles in 2023, up from 55% in 2022. Only 9% of this year’s respondents said they trusted them, down from 15% last year. For folks pushing automation on the road, those aren’t encouraging figures. The AAA said it was surprised by these results.

FMCSA research and simulators

And, of course, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is still trying to figure out the complicated regulatory framework within which autonomous trucks could operate. It acknowledges a “paucity of research” related to commercial vehicles (CMVs) equipped with an automated driving system (ADS).

So, this past June FMCSA announced a plan to use driving simulators to look at the potential use of team drivers in Level 4 autonomous trucks. The agency invited comments on a proposed study titled Safety Impacts of Human-Automated Driving System (ADS) Team Driving Applications.

The study will assess the safety benefits of, and potential problems with, matching humans and ADS — as well as looking at how it would handle potential requests for relief from Hours-of-Service regulations.

FMCSA outlined four use cases where a human could team with an ADS-equipped truck:

  • In-vehicle driver teams with an ADS CMV;
  • In-vehicle driver teams with a following ADS-equipped CMV;
  • 3. In-vehicle driver teams with a remote human to monitor and control an ADS CMV, and;
  • 4. Remote monitor/operator teaming with ADS CMV.

“It is unclear how each human-ADS teaming use case will affect safety, productivity, and efficiency,” FMCSA said. “Each teaming combination may positively or negatively affect a driver’s cognitive workload and level of fatigue, alertness, or distraction compared to the case of a traditional driver in a truck without ADS. For example, the in-vehicle drivers and remote monitors/operators in the above teaming use cases may experience varying workloads and differences in the development of fatigue.”

Approximately 80 commercial vehicle drivers are expected to participate in the study. Oddly, eligible drivers will have to meet obvious requirements like holding a valid commercial driver’s licence but must also “pass a motion sickness history screening questionnaire.” What?

Seeking input on rules

Anyway, I’ve gone into all that detail to demonstrate just how little the FMCSA and other authorities have to work with in trying to regulate autonomous trucks.

Earlier this year FMCSA asked the industry for input on larger issues, like rules that ought to govern remote drivers controlling Level 5 trucks. Its position is that the rules applied to drivers sitting at the wheel — such as drug and alcohol use and testing, CDL requirements, Hours of Service, distracted driving, and medical qualification standards — should continue to apply to remote drivers who are able to take control of an ADS-equipped truck operating on a public road. FMCSA is adamant about this one, with good reason as far as I’m concerned.

Then there are the vehicle inspection and maintenance regulations, including the requirements for pre-trip, post-trip, periodic, and roadside inspections. It seems obvious that those regs will need to be revised, and carriers operating Level 4 or 5 trucks will need the means to ensure that the ADS equipment is properly maintained and functioning. Such vehicles might well operate almost continuously, so are additional inspection requirements required?

And what about roadside inspections in the absence of a human driver to engage in the process, like helping to test the braking system and checking lights. And the biggest question of all, who’s going to bring out the safety triangles when a self-driving truck stumbles?

Nobody ever said this would be simple, though back in 2014 Germany’s Daimler truck said there would be such trucks for sale — with all the legal, regulatory, and social details ironed out — by 2025. We’ll see. I’m not holding my breath.

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

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  • Like any new industrial technology it will have its failure,hats off to those who will be dealing with the numerous issues, especially these days where lawsuits awaits at every corner.Would better wages and working conditions solve the issue?Personnaly this driverless odissey reminds me of aiming for Mars while our own planet earth is suffering.

    • Auto braking systems have caused many issues. We are at least 5 yrs away . I understand self driven cars and deliver vans are causing problems for emergency fire trucks . We should put energy into dedicated lanes on long express ways with a driver to assist with city traffic and be Abe to sleep on a dedicated lane time and while at deliver and pick-up

  • That will be the day when a self-driving truck can present paperwork at the guard shack, deal with a narrow intersection and illegally parked cars.
    Who will open doors or off load at a customer when there is no driver or do all the things a person can do?