It’s one of the hottest issues in the transport industry, with companies including Google, Tesla and Mercedes all working to crack the puzzle. But with all the technical, legal and safety concerns: are self-driving trucks really the future? And if so, what does that mean for truckers?
One company which is convinced of the merits of autonomous trucks is TuSimple.
Operating out of San Diego, TuSimple collaborates with truck manufacturer NaviStar and delivery giants UPS to run a fleet of 50 self-driving vehicles. The trucks are already making semi-autonomous depot to depot runs in Arizona and Texas, with a human driver only sitting in the cab in case of emergencies.
By the end of 2021, TuSimple are aiming to completely abandon their human supervisors as they train AI ‘virtual drivers’ to memorise routes and respond to traffic and other surprises in real time.
They achieve this by fitting trucks with cab-mounted HD cameras, which are capable of scanning the road up to 1,000 metres (3,280 ft) ahead – approximately twice as far as a human trucker would look while driving.
These cameras are different to the laser sensors being developed for self-driving cars as they are capable of processing more data and seeing farther ahead than their sedan-mounted cousins. This is partly due to the greater size of the trucks themselves: allowing more room for computer processors and a greater field of vision owing to the truck’s superior height.
TuSimple believe that autonomous trucks will offer a variety of advantages to the haulage industry, including safety benefits, as an AI driver does not get tired or distracted like a human trucker would. The self-driving trucks also offer better fuel economy, as computers are able to break more efficiently, saving on gas.
However there are still a number of safety concerns surrounding self-driving vehicles. Since 2011, Google have had over 20 serious crashes with their self-driving cars. Uber have actually abandoned their automated truck programme altogether, choosing to instead focus on self-driving cabs.
Trucks also pose unique challenges to AI drivers which other vehicles don’t have. For example, the cameras positioned on top of a truck’s cab offer a greater field of vision but are more likely to be blinded by the sun. AI systems also have a hard time reacting to driving emergencies such as a blown tire, which obviously pose a greater risk in a larger vehicle.
However, most scientists and companies believe that these problems will be overcome in the near future. In the meantime, the focus is still very much on using AI for the predictable, highway portions of trucking routes, while still keeping a human trucker in the cab for loading, unloading and any emergencies.
This will be great news for America’s 5.7 million truckers, whose work will come to more closely resemble that of airline pilots: only taking over the controls for the more complicated parts of the journey.
This will have the added benefit of making truckers’ routes safer and less physically demanding, with machines shouldering the burden of enduring endless miles of identical highway without getting tired.
Semi-automated trucks will also help solve the current shortage of long-haul truck-drivers, which the industry has complained about for years. Potential recruits are less likely to be put off by the long journeys and current truckers will be able to work more routes consecutively without risking exhaustion.
All in all, the future looks positive for self-driving trucks – even if a few technological barriers are still to be overcome. The key for manufacturers in the next few years will be to work closely with the haulage industry to ensure that autonomous vehicles are as safe and efficient as they can possibly be.