What Are Self-Driving Trucks?

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When we consider the future of trucking, it’s clear that self-driving trucks are at the forefront. Autonomous trucking companies like Tesla and TuSimple have already made headlines with their developments in the field. It seems evident that autonomous trucking will shake up the trucking and logistics industry, but when and at what cost? TuSimple predicts its technology will be operational by 2024. Others may be close behind.  

The developments have left drivers wondering where they will fit in when driverless trucks hit the road, and they aren’t the only ones asking this question. The U.S. DOT recently conducted a preliminary analysis of how automation will potentially impact the trucking workforce and released a report titled Driving Automation Systems in Long-Haul Trucking and Bus Transit.  

One thing is certain, human drivers will still be needed for quite some time. Let’s delve into a review of self-driving trucks and the industry, so you can better understand the direction this technology is headed.  

Self-Driving Trucks and Cars: How Do They Work? 

The technology behind self-driving trucks and cars is impressive and includes a number of components that control and relay information to software. Some of these components include:  

  • Sensors 
  • Actuators 
  • Algorithms 
  • Machine learning 
  • Processors  

Self-driving cars and trucks have specialized equipment fixed on the truck that is necessary for proper autonomous functioning. Such equipment includes: 

  • Radar sensors: To locate the position of other vehicles on the road.  
  • Cameras: To read traffic signals, road signs, and track pedestrians.  
  • Lidar sensors: Bounce light pulses off the vehicle’s surroundings to measure distances, detect road edges, and identify lane markings.  
  • Ultrasonic sensors: Wheels are fixed with ultrasonic sensors to see curbs and other vehicles when parking or pulling over.  

Input from each piece of equipment is translated to the truck’s software to create a digital map and control actuators like acceleration, braking, and steering. 

Levels of Autonomy

Self-driving semi-trucks and cars are rated on a scale based on their level of independence. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of driving autonomy ranging from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous). The U.S. Department of Transportation also uses this 6 level system in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.  

Here is a breakdown of Levels 0-5: 

  • Level 0: No Automation. All tasks are performed by the driver. 
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance. Driver operates vehicle, but assistance features such as lane departure warnings and other automated messages are in place. 
  • Level 2: Partial Automation. Driver controls vehicle, but assist functions include combined automation such as corrective steering or automated steering, acceleration, and braking. 
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation. Driver must be present, but functions operate automatically and driver is simply there to take control if needed. 
  • Level 4: High Automation. Driver is optional and vehicle can perform all functions automatically under certain conditions. 
  • Level 5: Full Automation. Driver is optional and vehicle can perform all functions automatically under all conditions. 

Top Self-Driving Truck Companies

The autonomous trucking industry has experienced rapid growth over the past few years, and some driverless trucks are already being tested on the road. There are recognizable names like Volvo and Tesla making strides in the industry. These are some of the top self-driving truck companies in 2021:  

  • Tesla 
  • Waymo 
  • TuSimple 
  • Embark 
  • Daimler 
  • Locomotion 
  • Plus.ai 
  • Kodiak Robotics Inc.  

Should Drivers Worry About Self-Driving Trucks?

Truck drivers today are unlikely to lose their jobs to automation. Why? The self-driving trucks that are ready to be deployed won’t be entirely autonomous. Drivers will still be needed to monitor the road and make deliveries. Driverless trucks will also be limited in their use, at least initially. 

Another reason — self-driving trucks are expensive. Most trucking companies in the U.S. have 20 or fewer trucks, while 90% operate with six or fewer. Companies with a fleet under 20 make up about 97% of the trucking industry. These small operations don’t have the millions needed to invest in driverless trucks. As technology advances and autonomous trucking becomes more in demand, prices may go down. However, it will take some time for these trucks to make their way into smaller fleets.  

Despite this, self-driving trucks are predicted to hit the road sooner than self-driving cars, at least when it comes to wide adoption. Investors have enthusiastically spent money on autonomous truck startups and there is a strong business case for self-driving semi-trucks. Autonomous transport has the potential to reduce business costs and increase revenue. 

Additionally, while self-driving cars must be prepared to navigate streets and all the obstacles that come with them, driverless semi-trucks mainly need to function on highways, which are more predictable and offer wide lanes with steady traffic. Still, truckers will likely remain in demand as driverless semi-trucks are not yet fully autonomous.  

Problems with Driverless Trucks

While driverless vehicle technology is more advanced than ever before, there are still lingering issues. These are some of the problems facing the industry today:  

1. Non-Driving Tasks

Though self-driving semi-trucks can navigate the road, they aren’t yet equipped to take on physical tasks. Necessary duties such as loading and offloading, making deliveries, securing cargo during the trip, and equipment repairs still require an actual human. Since partial autonomy is currently the norm, trucking companies don’t have to worry as much about these non-driving tasks. But, to advance autonomous trucking, there will need to be a system in place that accounts for these tasks.  

2. Technological Errors

Self-driving technology has the potential to increase road safety and reduce accidents. However, there are still many flaws that autonomous trucking companies are working to address. Computer malfunctions can occur by a simple error in coding. With partial automation, technological errors are unlikely to be catastrophic. Still, accidents have occurred. In 2018, Uber shut down its self-driving truck division after a test vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian.  

The ability of computers to anticipate driver’s and pedestrian’s intentions is highly sophisticated and crucial in eliminating accidents. It’s also critical for maintaining a high-efficiency rate. As driverless trucks evolve, their tech must account for those potentially fatal errors.  

3. Security and Privacy Concerns

Third-party cyber-attacks on trucking software may occur, creating vulnerabilities like overriding the controls. Even if a person is in the cab monitoring the delivery, hacking is not always immediately identified. It would take a team of experts to identify and eliminate the cyber-attack, which means it may be too late. Hackers can also steal data relating to the driver, vehicle, and cargo. Businesses must ensure their software is sufficiently protected and installed by a trustworthy company.  

4. Edge Cases

Edge cases are those hard-to-predict scenarios that adversely affect driving performance. For example, bad weather or non-compliant road behavior are edge cases that make it difficult for an autonomous system to respond accordingly. Another type of edge case is a predictable scenario that is hard to build the math for. Hypothetically, when a self-driving truck faces an unsolved edge case, it knows to pull over to the side of the road. Still, unanticipated events have the potential to throw a driverless system off track.  

 5. High Prices

Any new technology comes with a hefty price tag. Some trucking companies are deterred by the sheer cost of these trucks. Over time, as the technology becomes less expensive, it should become more accessible. Regardless, you won’t see mom-and-pop companies with a self-driving fleet yet. 

The Future of Trucking

It’s apparent that the future of trucking involves self-driving trucks. Soon, truckers will be able to lean on more automation and many driving tasks won’t need manual control. The question is, when will trucks be fully autonomous?  

Currently, the tech is still far off, and a fully autonomous roll-out would require federal and public support. Reaching level 5 autonomy will be a milestone, but it shouldn’t deter truckers or potential truckers from joining the industry. While drivers may be less in demand, other opportunities will develop within the autonomous trucking industry. 

No matter what the future holds, Hale Trailer is here to support the needs of your fleet. We staff our team with knowledgeable professionals who stay current on industry trends and are happy to answer any questions you may have. Our locations are equipped with top-of-the-line truck trailers for sale and rent. Browse our inventory online or stop by one of our convenient locations.  

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