The Realities of Automation

The idea of self-driving trucks hauling cargo on highways across the country certainly has people talking about the future of trucking. There are believers and skeptics but what’s the reality? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. On one hand we are seeing more advances in driver-assisted systems that started in cars now being integrated into trucks. Lane departure, automatic lane centering and following distance systems are already in use and will soon be broadly available in commercial trucks.

It’s unknown how quickly additional new technologies will take to be adopted but it’s clear more of them will be developed to support drivers of the future. “The convergence of automated braking, acceleration and steering, which together represent Level 2 automated driving as defined by SAE International, promises to enhance safety and make the job of the truck driver more comfortable and less stressful.” -TTNews These are all categorized as “Level 2” automations and will be what we’ll see for the foreseeable future. Development of “Level 4” automations are what most drivers fear. These are automations that would allow a truck to be able to operate itself with no driver input and no expectation that a driver would need to take over. While on-highway testing of level 4 trucks is slowly progressing, so far all of these test vehicles require a driver behind the wheel. Some tech companies are considering the development of driverless trucks but the technological and safety challenges are significant. Perhaps even more significant, is the level of public perception of and acceptance for driverless trucks.

Eventually, unmanned trucks will get past the “proof of concept” phase but these trucks will be limited to specific uses that lend themselves to automation. We’ll see it in industrial areas first and then hub to hub routes on open freeways, but it will be many years before they are more than a very small portion of the trucks on the road. “Even freight operations that begin to incorporate unmanned trucks in the future would still rely on the flexibility and adaptability of traditional, human-piloted trucks to handle the more complex driving tasks associated with urban and regional routes.” -TTNews Tomorrow’s highly automated trucks will be designed to supplement future drivers, not replace them.

Our industry will continue to need more drivers than today for the next several decades and those drivers will need to evolve to use ever newer technologies. The future of driver-assisted trucks is real and self-driving trucks are on the distant horizon but these changes will happen gradually. Along the way safety and fleet efficiency will improve but drivers will be along for the ride.

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