Close-up of truck headlight with technology symbols

The high cost may also be a barrier to entry. Right now, the projected cost of installing the technology into an existing truck is within the range of $20,000 – $40,000.

The transportation industry is on the brink of a revolution. Depending on how the next few decades play out, we could be faced with drastically reduced wage expenses and a safer road system. The potential for autonomous vehicles has society fantasizing about its possibilities, and the trucking industry is no different. However, there are still unknowns with the technology before it can become mainstream. It will show up in some areas before others depending on how the technology develops and public perception. The route that the government chooses to take with regulation will also have a massive effect on its adoption.

Current State of the Technology

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are not so much a question of “if,” but “when?” and “how?” When are we going to be able to use autonomous trucks, and how will they be integrated into society? We can speculate that commercially used automated trucks will begin in low-risk areas before high-risk areas. This is due to both the relative ease of driving in rural areas and low traffic density conditions.

Another assertion that we can make is that the technology will be demonstrated to be safe on highways before it is safe on city roads. City streets are more hazardous for an automated system to navigate than highways given visual distractions, pedestrians and cyclists. The good news is, with autonomous trucks being able to drive themselves on the highway, drivers can stay closer to home since they won’t have to worry about traveling the long distances to other cities. A driver could theoretically “pick up” loads at highway exits that arrive at their city.

Another factor to be considered when speculating on the use of autonomous technology is the values of the cargo being transported. Low value cargo can be more readily transported without a driver who would also serve as a guard for high value cargo.

Plan on autonomous trucks being available before personal auto. The financial incentive from the freight industry will certainly push the technology through faster than personal auto. When it comes to naming a specific year where the technology will be commercially available, it is difficult to say. Some estimates have its release in some form or another in 2025. Other estimates put the release date around 2045. The role the government decides upon and how people react to an automated vehicle on the market can accelerate or delay the process.

Policy/Regulation

The Department of Transportation has stated its willingness to work with states and create policy guidance that will address the main challenges and issues of testing and deploying autonomous vehicles on a wide scale. So, the good news is that the government will support the technology’s implementation. The bad news is the direction local and federal governments will take in policy is currently up in the air. Many believe that the Federal Government should step back and let states handle their own jurisdiction. Regardless of the spread of power between federal and state legislatures, there are common practices that both can begin putting in place to help push automated vehicles out of the gate.

History has shown already that government interference has a large effect on adoption. In Sweden, simply by recommending that citizens choose a car with electronic stability control (ESC), the government was able to turn 15% of new cars with ESC into more than 90% in only four years. If the government decides to take the route of mandates, we can rest assured that the technology will be implemented more quickly than without.

Regulatory Strategies

Before they start making recommendations, officials need to become informed about the nature of the technology. They should outfit administrations with subject matter experts who can update policy makers on developments and relevant information. Armed with these tools, they will be able to advance their understanding and pass policies in anticipation of advances instead of trying to catch up.

Legal Strategies

There is still an unknowable amount of laws currently in place that contradict automated vehicles. An example would be a California law that requires a driver to have both hands on the wheel at all times. Revising these policies is essential in fostering the advancement of AV. After current laws are rewritten, the government may establish relationships with the developers of the technology to assist in the creation of new laws. The main focus of these new laws should be to encourage the adoption of the technology, as opposed to trying to restrict it. This will allow automation to develop organically and force the most efficient innovation instead of being boxed into certain methods.

Public Perception

FedEx CEO Michael Ducker believes that public perception and regulation would do far more to help or hinder the advancement of autonomous vehicles than the technology barriers. Currently, it appears the United States is not very trusting of automated vehicles. The top concerns are legal liabilities, system performance in severe weather and human drivers being able to deal with new or complex situations better than computers. The high cost of outfitting an existing fleet with autonomous technology may also be a barrier to entry. Right now, the projected cost of installing the technology into an existing truck is within the range of $20,000 – $40,000.

Another potential delay that could come from public perception is the amount of money that is made available to companies developing the technology. Depending on the state of the economy in the upcoming years, there may be a great deal of capital available for investment. On the other hand, if the economy slows down, then companies may struggle to put together money for research and development. Even in a booming economy, people won’t invest in the technology unless they think that it is profitable. Therefore, the perception of profitability is a hurdle that developers will have to jump for funding.

Given the disruptive nature of the advances, vehicle automation has a lot of stakeholders. The way that unions, workers and employers respond can delay the process significantly. After all, if they don’t push for it, or they actively fight against it, then it won’t seem to be profitable. None of the developers will have access to funding if shareholders don’t see any profitability.

Driver Assist vs. Driver Assisted

Most people are thinking in terms of no autonomy to full autonomy. The steps towards widespread use of AV technology is actually much more complicated than that. Starsky Robotics is currently working on a system that would allow the driver to operate the truck remotely. On highways, the trucks will operate autonomously. The remote drivers will be ready to take over at any time, but will not need to be actively driving the truck the entire trip. Each remote driver will monitor several trucks—likely 10 – 30 at once. The remote driver will take full control of the vehicle upon exiting the highway until it reaches its final destination. This is a likely intermediary before full autonomy and an excellent way to allow close monitoring of the cargo to ensure its safe transportation.

The technology that is currently used is often referred to as “driver assist.”  As strides are made toward more advanced technology, driver assist will turn into “driver assisted.” The technology will be supplemented by drivers, instead of it supplementing the drivers. The reality is that because of the nature of some cargo, namely high value or highly volatile cargo, some industries will never be able to implement fully autonomous technology. However, there is still a lot of potential for this technology and it is inevitably poised to make a big impact on the way cargo is transported in coming decades.

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