A lot has happened in the world of self-driving trucks. More companies have emerged, technologies are being tested, laws are being considered, and the date for when it will be normal to see automated trucks on the road is getting closer and closer. Many in the industry are excited about this technology because it will help improve productivity, fuel efficiency, costs, and traffic on the highways. With the trucking industry continuing to move forward, the main thing on truck drivers’ minds is the security of their jobs. Let’s take a closer look at self-driving trucks quickly becoming a reality.
Who are the Major Players?
As the tech world grows, many companies continue to invest a lot of time and money in this field. Here are a few of the most notable companies making the biggest strides towards perfecting this technology.
Daimler is one of the first companies to enter the field. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner Trucks, has been testing their automated truck since 2014. Daimler focuses on a combination of things including truck platooning and having a driver for safety while exiting the highway. Recently, Daimler partnered with Torc Robotics and Waymo, and they plan on bringing highly automated trucks to series production within the decade. In the latest news, they plan to implement a fleet of SAE Level 4 autonomous test trucks for long-haul applications in England, and should have on-road testing very soon.
TuSimple is a company based in Beijing, China, and San Diego, California that operates self-driving trucks out of Tuscon, Arizona, and has over 200,000 autonomous miles of paid freight haulage. The trucks are based on camera technology rather than laser-based radar, which is what most automated trucks and cars use. The company claims that this is more efficient in detecting things on the freeway, and it is cheaper than radar technology. On December 22, 2021, TuSimple made history by becoming the world’s first to operate a fully autonomous semi-truck on open, public roads without a human on board, while naturally interacting with other motorists. However, in this current phase of development, TuSimple still requires a Class A licensed driver in the vehicle at all times known as a “driver supervisor," along with a safety engineer in the passenger seat while operating autonomously.
Waymo is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Waymo has been testing its trucks for more than a year in California and Arizona. In March 2018, they launched trucks in Atlanta to deliver freight to different Google data centers. Each truck is equipped with a radar system to navigate the roads and a human driver in case of an emergency. In June 2022, Waymo announced a partnership with Uber Freight. Carriers that purchase trucks equipped with the Waymo Driver in the future will be able to opt into Uber Freight’s marketplace through user-friendly applications letting them seamlessly deploy their autonomous assets on the Uber Freight network. As of July 2023, Waymo has decided to “push back the timeline on their commercial and operational efforts on trucking and focus on ride-hailing,” however, they will continue to collaborate with Daimler to advance the technical development of an autonomous truck platform.
Tesla first released its truck in November of 2017. They planned to have trucks begin to deliver in 2019. Tesla’s trucks will focus on autopilot self-driving software similar to their cars. Tesla’s autopilot is a semi-autonomous system where the acceleration, braking, and steering are controlled by a computer, with a human still at the wheel at all times. Tesla’s goal is to launch a platooning feature where automated trucks follow a single lead truck that is controlled by a driver. As of August 2023, Tesla has only delivered a limited number of its electric semi-trucks, and most of them are believed to be in operation in Pepsico’s fleet, however, no comments have been made on whether the autonomous functionalities are enabled, or being used, at this time.
As of June 2023, Volvo opened up an office in Forth Worth, Texas to oversee its autonomous commercial truck hub-to-hub project. Their corridors will run from Dallas/Fort Worth to El Paso, Texas, and from Dallas to Houston. With their hub-to-hub model, autonomous trucks take on the highway portion of the driving, operating all hours of the day and night between transfer hubs, but human drivers take over to complete local operations.
Understanding the Levels of Driving Automation
Not all autonomous trucks are made the same. With so much news surrounding autonomous trucks, understanding what each level of autonomy means can be confusing, so we’ve listed what each level means, according to SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers). They’ve described the different levels as follows:
Level 0: No Driving Automation
Level 1: Driver Assistance
Level 2: Partial Driving Automation
Level 3: Conditional Driving Automation
Level 4: High Driving Automation
Level 5: Full Driving Automation
They’ve also provided the chart below that goes into further detail:
What are the Problems with Self-Driving Trucks?
Despite all of the money and research going into this technology, there are still questions and concerns that need to be answered regarding the safety of this technology. Google has been testing its self-driving cars since 2011 and has racked up millions of miles. During this time, there have been a minimal number of crashes, with very few of those being the fault of the car.
This news is encouraging, but a self-driving truck is not the same as a self-driving car. Trucks are much larger and cannot maneuver around a potential accident the way a car can. It takes a truck a lot longer to come to a complete stop when braking, and there isn’t a lot of room to avoid cars or people on the side of the road.
There are also potential problems with the sensor being on top of a truck’s cab. The sensors will consist of a combination of both radars and cameras that will be used to help navigate and control the truck. If the sensor is on top of the cab of the truck, it has the potential to be blinded by the sun, have problems distinguishing between cars and large signs, and become impaired by inclement weather. Ultimately, all of this could lead to problems for trucks in city settings where there are constant stops, turns, and tight spaces.
How Close is This to Happening?
According to The Fast Mode: “...autonomous trucks will become available in four separate phases, differentiated by how much autonomy the truck has.
Phase One: will involve a technique called platooning, in which a fleet of trucks will follow a lead truck on the highway
Phase Two: technology will have developed enough to have a human driver in only the lead truck while a convoy of autonomous trucks follows closely behind. Expected by 2025.
Phase Three: the lead trucks are completely autonomous on the highway. However, a human driver will still likely be needed in the lead truck for navigating small roads and loading docks. Expected around 2030.
Phase Four: completely driverless autonomous trucks are on the roads at scale. Optimistic estimates say it will come sometime in the early 2030s, while the more conservative ones say it will take until the end of that decade.”
With all of the successful tests being completed by multiple companies, the world appears to be more confident about driving on roads where vehicles are being driven by technology. There are still kinks in the technology that need to be worked out and laws put in place, but with the way things are trending, we will likely see self-driving trucks fully functioning by the next decade.
What Do People in the Trucking Industry Think?
According to Transport Topics: American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said he doesn’t view the ongoing advancement of autonomous trucking as a threat to drivers, since economic factors will ensure demand for drivers for years to come. “Right now, one in 16 jobs in the United States is trucking related. The top job in 29 states is being a truck driver…I don’t look at this as a threat,” Spear said. “I look at this as how innovation could actually help alleviate some of the pressure that we’re feeling on the supply chain, and on the industry to meet our customers’ demands.”
According to NACFE,“…the deployment of autonomous trucks is going to occur at a slow, incremental pace in highly selective applications in carefully designated geographic regions. In all likelihood, the first large-scale deployments of long-haul autonomous deliveries will be in the American Southwest running routes from, say, Phoenix to Dallas.”
Are Truck Drivers out of a Job?
No, not all truck drivers are going to lose their jobs. As automated trucks are utilized more often, more people will be needed in those trucks. All of the companies mentioned above are testing their trucks with the full intention of having a driver in the cab at all times. There are too many things that can potentially go wrong for there to not be a human in the truck when it’s operating on the road.
However, this doesn’t mean that trucking jobs aren’t going to change. The major change is that drivers will not be expected to do as much manual driving, which could be seen as a benefit. Think of the job of a truck driver slowly looking more and more similar to the job of an airplane pilot. The truck will be able to drive on its own, but the population will feel a lot safer knowing somebody is behind the wheel just in case.
If you’re a truck driver worried about your job being lost to an autonomous truck, we hope this update puts your mind at ease and makes you at least a little bit excited about the future of the trucking industry. Truck drivers will continue to be extremely important in the industry, even if there are self-driving trucks on the freeways.