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Where Are We at With Autonomous Trucks?

So, what’s really the latest development of autonomous trucks? It seems like every week, new reports come out about advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) designed for autonomous trucks and speculation for when a driver will no longer be required to be behind the wheel. Some say the technology is only a couple years away, while others say we’re decades away from implementation.

There’s no doubt that the technology is coming along, but where are we really at? Google launched its prototype “Waymo,” the first 100 percent autonomous vehicle a few years ago and Uber made the first autonomous truck delivery in 2016, transporting 50,000 beers from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. So, we must be close, right?

Spending for technology continues to pour in. In fact, TuSimple, an autonomous truck developer recently raised $95 million in a fundraising drive to assist in its quest to develop the first fully automated truck fleet.

At this point, it doesn’t really seem to be a question of will the technology become widely used, but rather when will it become implemented?

The more pilot tests that are announced, paired with increased funding, make it seem as if we are on the brink of running autonomous trucks, but the reality is, there is still a long way to go.

For the most part, the current technology we have is essentially cruise control on steroids. The autonomous truck can steer, maintain safe driving distance, monitor speed and be able to get from Point A to B on highways.

So, what’s likely in store for autonomous trucks? Well, it’s likely that the first form of autonomous trucks will require a driver to be present for the entirety of the trip. The computerized system will be able to safely drive the truck on highways, but a driver will still need to be in the cab in case of an emergency. Still, it will allow for a more comfortable experience for the driver. Hours of service could potentially increase since a day of driving will be less of a strain on a driver.

In fact, Daimler just announced that the Freightliner brand will enable SAE Level 2 automated driving in the Cascade tractors it produces this fall. Through the Detroit Assurance 5.0 platform, the truck will enable automated driving — Adaptive Cruise Control handles acceleration/deceleration and the Active Lane Assist controls the automated steering input.

In short, the truck will be able to accelerate, decelerate and steer all on its own on the highway. It’s a big accomplishment in the development of automated trucks.

But, will AI programmers be able to develop an autonomous truck that does not require a driver inside the cab? AI programmers literally have to program the technology so that the autonomous truck can handle any type of driving scenario thrown its way. There are thousands upon thousands. That means a lot more trial and error for these pilot tests. Any small hiccup in the programming could lead to an accident.

If developments continue to progress as well as they have been, there may come a day when a truck can drive itself, without a driver being in the truck. Well, at least for a large section of highway. It’s thought that drivers could then meet the truck at interstate exits and drive to the final destination.

Any form of implementation of autonomous trucks will have to prove that it’s flawless and able meet government regulations to be deemed safe for the roads.

Fleet owners are excited about the technology, as it should drastically reduce the driver shortage by improving the driver lifestyle, improve fleet efficiency and safety.

When the topic of automated trucks come up, drivers tend to worry about their job security. Rumors of fully-driverless trucks pop up, but it’s something drivers shouldn’t be concerned about. It’s one thing to develop a truck that can navigate on its own on the highway, but programming a truck to navigate through cities and congested areas is a whole other piece to the puzzle.

Drivers don’t need to worry about losing their jobs, because when the technology does become widely available, they will still be needed behind the wheel. What this technology aims to do is make a driver’s life much easier.

Soon, drivers will be able to hit ‘auto drive’ and they can relax behind the wheel on the highway. Life could become similar to that of a commercial pilot that hits cruising altitude and is able to set the plane to auto-pilot.

Naturally, autonomous truck news creates quite the buzz and it will continue to. But that doesn’t mean the landscape of the trucking industry is going to change overnight or even in the next couple of years. It’ll be interesting to track the progress of Freightliner’s Cascadia. It’s definitely a major benchmark for future automated truck development, but still far from a 100 percent driverless truck.