Self-Driving Trucks: What Does it Mean?

self driving truckIn October, 2016, a truck driver drove his truck filled with 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer down Interstate 25 in Colorado.  This wasn’t your typical delivery though.  As he drove, he hit a big red button to the right of his steering wheel labeled “engage” and his truck took over for him.  He moved to the back of the cab, all while the truck was still driving, autonomously, down the interstate.

This marked the first ever autonomous commercial delivery.  And it has people talking, especially drivers.  With any new technology comes hesitation, excitement, and perhaps for many, stress.  What does this mean for trucking companies?  What does this mean for truck drivers?

Self-Driving Technology is Out There

Technology for self-driving trucks, also called autonomous trucks, has been developing over the last decade.  The technology of autonomous trucks is certainly disruptive to the trucking industry (or at least it will be).

What may come as a surprise to many, is that self-driving cars, to an extent, are already on the road.  When driving in states like California, Texas, Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, it’s quite possible you’ve driven by a vehicle with no one in it.  Google self-driving vehicles have been on the road for 8+ years now with over 1 million miles driven.  Tesla offers an autonomous feature in their vehicles as well.

In fact, in July of 2016, an attorney from Springfield, MO experienced a pulmonary embolism while driving.  The driver, feeling something like “a steel pole through [his] chest” set his Tesla to take him to the hospital, and sure enough, it drove him promptly to the hospital and he survived.  The benefits of self-driving vehicles are apparent.


Next Up – The Trucking Industry

Autonomous driving works best on highways; this is a big reason it fits in with the truck driving model.  An autonomous truck can drive the long highway stretches, then when exiting onto rural streets, where obstacles become more common and various, the truck driver takes over.  Driving on the highway is something a self-driving truck can do very well: there aren’t many obstacles, there are clear lines painted between lanes, there are no pedestrians, etc.  When it comes to side streets though, there are children playing, different street signs, detours, and much more.  Some situations cannot be put into cookie cutter scenarios and need human intuition.

While it is LTI’s belief the truck drivers are safe professionals, the general public forgets that many accidents are caused by regular road drivers.  However, mistakes do still happen and it is true that truck crashes kill over 4,000 people a year, and injure another 100,000.  And of those situations, 90% are caused in part by human error.  That alone is a huge incentive for trucking companies to introduce autonomous trucks, lowering safety costs for us the public.  Self-driving trucks can also increase fuel efficiency and can operate 24/7 in some cases.

But what about the Driver?

So, are self-driving trucks a threat to the truck driver?  The short answer is no.

For starters, the technology isn’t quite there to be able to drive in all situations or areas with no person on deck.  Plus we still need a driver to manage the equipment in general – fueling it, keeping it safe and fit for operation, etc.  Plus no system can make the day-to-day decisions a truck driver with decades of experience can.  The Head of Product Safety at Volvo said, “We’ll use the technology to support the driver, not replace the driver.” Otto, the trucking company that delivered the beer load in Colorado, also insists that it has no plans to release products intended to operate trucks without a driver in the cab.

The American Trucking Association as well as the Ohio Trucking Association (who have invested $15 million in setting up an infrastructure in Ohio designed for autonomous trucks) both publicly stated that autonomous trucks will be good for drivers. In fact, in many ways, self-driving trucks can benefit drivers.  The role will simply shift to one that is less demanding and easier to operate in.

Imagine the Future

You’re driving down the highway in your autonomous truck.  You need a break from focusing on the road, traffic, etc. so you press that big red button by your steering wheel, and the responsibility of driving 40 tons of machinery and goods is passed off to the truck.  In the blink of an eye, the truck can switch lanes when safe, using its sensors to monitor all “blind” spots.  The truck recognizes sudden braking 500 feet up and begins to slow.

All the meanwhile, you’re in the back of the cab watching Netflix or on the phone with family and friends.  As the sun begins to set and you’re getting tired, you turn off the lights and go to bed―yes, while the truck is still driving you’re getting paid.  You then wake up, and you’re just about at your destination, getting paid nonstop for the last 24 hours.

Can it be better for everyone?

Have you ever been driving as suddenly traffic slows and now it’s bumper to bumper?  As the traffic eats up your valuable time, traffic clears and you realize that no one thing actually caused the congestion?  We’ve all experienced this and it can be frustrating.  This problem is called a “traffic wave” and is a huge problem for efficiency of transportation.  One person slows down 10 mph, the next person then slows by 15 mph, then by 20, then one car stops for a second, then the next cars stops for 5 seconds, then the next car 30 seconds… and it goes on and on, causing traffic out of nothing. 

This problem is based in human reaction time, and will ultimately be solved by autonomous vehicles.  Next time you are in a line of vehicles at a stoplight, take notice of how long it take you to be able to start moving forward.  Theoretically, when the light turns green, every vehicle should be able to begin moving forward at the exact same time.  But due to human reaction time, we find these traffic waves everywhere.  Computers’ reaction times are negligible, and will significantly decrease the amount of traffic across the country’s roads, and that is something we can all get on board with.

This is technology with innumerable benefits, and contrary to popular belief, disrupting technologies like this often don’t kill jobs, but rather create whole new sectors of jobs that are easier and less stressful.

Will autonomous trucks get rid of truck driving jobs?  No. 

One thing is for sure, there is a lot of potential that comes from the improving technology of trucks.  But there is no need to worry, your job is safe.  In fact, right now is the most exciting time to be a professional truck driver and we are proud to be a company that wants to enter the future with you, the driver, in mind.