Studies have proven it – trucking is the primary mode of freight transport in the U.S., by far beating out trains, planes, and barges. The trucking industry moves 70% of all domestic freight, and collects more than 80% of all freight revenue.
Innovation in this industry is in high demand, and a new truck trend will certainly lead to some surprising double-takes on the highway in the next decade. Self-driving trucks could be cruising down our highways as soon as 2025!
If the self-driving Google cars impressed you, get ready to be mind-blown. Daimler Trucks recently demonstrated the very first Mercedes-Benz self-driving prototype on a closed section of the German autobahn. This truck made world-wide headlines with its autonomous Highway Pilot driving system, which combines state-of-the-art GPS, radar and proximity technology to direct the trailer’s movements, and the ability to maneuver in stop-and-go traffic, cruise at highway speeds and respond to or avoid disabled and emergency vehicles.
The technology involved in these trucks is ground breaking, but has been utilized in the industry already. We have long had all of the various safety features this prototype utilizes. We have lane departure alarms, automatic braking sensors, electronic monitoring of all sorts, GPS tracking of trucks, in cab and forward facing cameras, and many other safety devices. However, the final decision has always been to leave the driving to human hands, and trust a seasoned driver over man-made technology.
Will These Trucks Replace Drivers?
The short answer is no. Daimler says the goal of its self-driving trucks is NOT to replace drivers, but to make trucking safer and driving more comfortable. “Autonomous driving will make the driver’s working time more varied and less stressful, and help make long-distance driving more attractive as a profession.”
The Freightliner Inspiration version of the self-driving truck is a Level 3 autonomous vehicle. This means that the truck can cruise in its Highway Pilot mode while the driver does other things, but it still needs a human being in the seat. There’s still a lot of important things the driver does, including negotiating surface roads, exits and interchanges, and everything beyond highway cruising. The human is also responsible for setting and supervising the Highway Pilot mode, stepping in when conditions (like snow) prevent autonomous driving, and for negotiating the truck into loading bays, truck stops and fuel aisles.
Additionally, the human driver retains full control over the vehicle at all times. Simply grabbing and turning the wheel or tapping the brake pedal immediately and instantly overrides the computer control.
This isn’t some robo-truck that will replace truckers and take jobs away from the industry. Rather, autonomous trucks are a tool to make a truck driver’s job easier and safer. Freightliner compares Highway Pilot to the autopilot system used on many commercial airlines today.
Reducing Distracted Driving
Truck drivers experience a lot more distracted driving than we want to admit. Their minds are on things at home, or delivery times, or finding overnight stops, or any variety of other issues. Driving subconsciously is the second most contributing factor to accidents. The Highway Pilot mode can, ironically, allow drivers to be distracted in a safe manor, in appropriate stretches of road. The system’s cameras and radar keep an unblinking eye on the road, reacting to other vehicles and steering to stay on the road, which is undeniably preferable to the driver splitting his attention between two tasks.
Increased Fuel Economy
One advantage to autonomy that sometimes gets overlooked is the concept of platooning (sometimes called road trains). Autonomous vehicles don’t get impatient with traffic and are perfectly content to maintain a safe following distance behind a vehicle ahead. Less needless passing keeps the left lane free for 4 wheelers, but that’s not even the biggest advantage.
By platooning rather than wastefully passing, autonomous trucks use vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology to virtually lock onto the truck ahead, reducing the gap between them to about 25 feet. Fans of racing will already know what’s coming next. This tight formation takes advantage of aerodynamic drafting and allows a 3 to 5 truck platoon to operate 5 or 6% more efficiently than each truck would travelling solo.
We would like to hear feedback from our P&S Transportation drivers about autonomic trucks, and how you feel they will impact your careers. Would you drive one? Please share below.