Autonomous trucks aren’t driverless

by James Menzies

We all knew autonomous trucks were coming, but they’ve arrived on these shores much sooner than any of us would likely have predicted. Daimler, when it demonstrated its autonomously-driven Mercedes-Benz Future Truck on a closed section of Autobahn highway in Germany last year, made it clear it would bring the technology to market in whichever global jurisdiction would be the first to make it legal.

The state of Nevada took that bold step in May, and in spectacular fashion, Daimler Trucks North America introduced the world’s first road-legal autonomous truck – the Freightliner Inspiration Truck. This news transcended the trucking industry. It was widely covered by mainstream news outlets – CNN, CBC, the National Post – you name it. Good Morning America even flew out to Vegas and broadcast live reports from the site of the truck’s launch.

When was the last time a truck, an 18-wheeler of any kind, captured the public’s imagination such a way? I can’t remember one. Of course, not all reaction has been positive, especially within the trucking industry. I read the Facebook posts and reader comments to the news and pictures we filed from the demonstration in Las Vegas and most feedback was decidedly negative. This development was seen by many drivers as the first step towards eliminating their careers and livelihoods.

However, it’s important to point out, the technology showcased in Vegas will always require oversight from a trained professional driver. The Inspiration Truck is defined by NHTSA as a Level 3 autonomous vehicle, meaning the driver can cede control of the vehicle only under certain conditions and in certain environments. A driver must always remain at the controls and be able to take over when needed. Plus, the Highway Pilot system in Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck, for now at least, is only intended for use on interstate highways and freeways.

Professional drivers will always be required to pick up and deliver the load, to manage the transaction, to take over in bad weather and under the many other scenarios in which Highway Pilot will not properly function. It’s a driver aid, not a driver replacement – and Freightliner officials said they’ve no interest in pursuing a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, which would require no driver whatsoever.

Aircraft have featured autopilot capabilities for many years and yet a pilot and co-pilot are still required to be at the controls while in flight and the autonomous trucks of the near- and mid-term future will require driver oversight as well. Well then, if the driver’s to be retained, where’s the pay-off, you wonder? I see Highway Pilot as an advanced safety system – far more advanced than anything else that exists today – capable of significantly reducing truck crashes and fatalities. Stats show most truck crashes are the result of driver error. Highway Pilot can eliminate this, especially in monotonous driving situations. Studies have shown it can reduce driver fatigue and react faster to dangerous scenarios than human drivers.

It can result in a more productive driver, who’s able to perform other duties while behind the wheel, such as scheduling loads or completing paperwork. And perhaps most significantly, once the safety benefits are proven, it could be the catalyst for regulatory changes that improve truck productivity by extending driver hours-of-service or convincing government to allow longer, heavier truck and trailer configurations. The possibilities are endless but one thing it will not do – at least not until after most of you have retired, if ever – is completely eliminate the driver.

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  • So you have a truck that drives itself. The driver is just for show until bad weather and dangerous conditions. But how will the driver know how the truck handles and what the capabilities of the truck with a full load on when its in a dangerous situation. This would cause a worse situation once these trucks become the norm, and all the experienced drivers give way to the new generation of hands off Autonomous driving.