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Self-Driving Trucks: Short- and Long-Term Prospects

Updated on July 19, 2016
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A self-driving truck hasn’t become an integral part of our roads yet, but it has become part of our reality. As the majority of such remarkable innovations, it has its followers and adversaries. The degree of possible and permissible autonomy of vehicles is a hot and arguable issue. While the public is trying to get used to this new reality and governments are trying to establish regulatory norms, the truck industry bends huge efforts to research and development sector.

The Pro Arguments

The manufacturers are driven by quite reasonable incentives. Autonomous trucks are able to optimize their cruising speeds, what results in increasing fuel efficiency and reducing fuel costs. The system is beneficial for many sides. Haulage businesses will spend less on transportation, customers will sooner have cheaper goods and, last but not least, there will be fewer emissions. Then, apart from being more eco-friendly, the innovative trucks are also driver-friendly. In the long run self-driving trucks are supposed to solve the problem of driver shortage. And today it can make drivers’ life onboard much easier.

Lane Departure Warning
Lane Departure Warning | Source

Present-day autonomous technology is based on the consolidated operation of the cameras, radars, computing power and electrical systems. It is already partly used in state-of-the-art vehicles providing such active safety features as lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.

The Con Arguments

But opponents claim that all the benefits of the self-driving concept are outnumbered by dire consequences. Autonomous vehicles will put many truckers out of job and small companies out of business. This situation, in its turn, will unfavorably decrease the profits of roadside services (such as motor inns and restaurants). And, probably, the major disputable concern is safety.

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What do we have and what should we expect?

Nevertheless, all the reputable truck manufacturers have already put in place a large-scale program of investigation into the subject. Daimler AG, a multinational automotive corporation, has so far shown the most significant results. One of its successful brands – Mercedes Benz Trucks – surprised the public in 2014, when they introduced the ‘Future Truck 2025’ concept and tested it on a closed-off section of the German Autobahn. The main innovative technology that determines the whole concept is autonomous driving. And the designers claim that their driverless truck will be a common road user as soon as in a decade.

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The same idea sounds appealing for another truck manufacturer from the same Daimler family – Freightliner Trucks. On May 2015 the company presented its Freightliner Inspiration Truck that became the first autonomous commercial truck, licensed to operate on the roads of the USA. Both the Mercedes Benz and Freightliner self-driving trucks benefit from the ‘Highway Pilot’ system that is capable of autonomous steering, accelerating and braking. However, the manufacturers explain that the primary goal of their creations is not to replace truck drivers at all, but to integrate the truck, the driver and the business, and thus to boost all the participating parts.

One more ambitious group of enthusiastic engineers, led by the veterans from Google, Tesla and Apple, has focused on modifying existing trucks rather than designing them. They have established a company named Otto in January this year, and then created a kit that turns a regular truck into a self-driving vehicle. The favorable advantage of such an approach allows trucking businesses to save money, as they don’t need to buy new trucks to use the innovations.

Undoubtedly, such serious modifications require time to be thoroughly proven. As an example, semi-autonomous trucks have recently got promotion through the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016. This program involves transportation performed by the convoys of the trucks with self-driving abilities. Notably, it boosts cooperation between different manufacturers, resulting in the variety of brand representation in one convoy.

The aims of the challenge includes traffic safety (due to immediate braking and zero reaction time), cost and traffic flows efficiency (due to the short distance between vehicles, driving at a constant speed). Although the technologies allow such trucks run by themselves, the presence of drivers is still required. But, as a matter of fact, there is only one more or less active driver (in the heading truck), while other drivers are the passive ones. And it is presumed that in future, the system will manage without passive drivers at all.

However, the European community needs to iron out a number of hurdles and work out international regulations to make the idea of semi-autonomous trucks widely-used. And who knows, perhaps, fully-autonomous vehicles are awaiting the same fate.

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