Everything You Need to Know About Self-Driving Trucks
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IntelliShift Team

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Self driving trucks are rapidly evolving and quickly becoming a reality. Numerous governments, big players in the private sector, and truck manufacturers continue to invest heavily in perfecting this technology. To keep you from getting left behind, here’s everything you need to know about self driving trucks. 

What Are Self-Driving Trucks?

self driving trucks improve efficiency of your logistics company

Self driving trucks or autonomous trucks have been called the most impactful technology on the horizon. They will bring a near-perfect safety record and operate without  being subject to the DOT restrictions of time, distance, or logging that would typically apply. 

This way, self driving trucks will thoroughly satisfy the increasing demand for shipping caused by online shopping without compromising safety. Merely the idea of autonomous trucks has unions up in arms: they are expected to permanently eliminate 500,000 jobs from human drivers by the time they are here. 

Many players are trying to perfect the technology and prove their product against all possible use cases. Researchers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a battery with enough power capable of breaking the 1,000-mile barrier.

Of course, there still needs to be a lot of work on perfecting self driving technology so it functions perfectly in all weather conditions on highways, including extreme weather. In the meantime, governments are tweaking public policy to cover artificially intelligent driving. 

Trials have seen tens of thousands of miles of autonomous driving without an incident, but the challenge remains in achieving such an outcome during exceptional circumstances.

self driving vehicles will forever change the logistics industry

Advantages of Autonomous Trucks

For a few decades now, the United States government has consistently invested in technology that powers autonomous trucks. Autonomous truck technology will be viable in the next few years, and it is clear that the advantages far outweigh all threats or risks. 

Besides, autonomous driving has long been seen as a marathon, not a sprint, in transportation circles. Therefore, the advantages will continue to improve. 

Improved efficiency

Autonomous semi trucks can maximize the performance of the logistics industry both in terms of fuel efficiency and time. This is, of course, best done by a computer making decisions. 

Additionally, your fleet utilization would be far more efficient, given a load would take much less time to deliver — especially for long haul trucking. Your trips also won’t depend on driver availability and other human factors. 

Automated driving systems would end drive-related errors — for example, making a wrong turn or missing a shortcut — ultimately saving your company money. 

What’s more, some truck drivers choose their preferred route when allowed to do so, which can harm efficiency. An automated truck will always select the most efficient route. 

Trucks operating during off-peak hours

Rush-hour congestion and travel restrictions in major cities can significantly impact your delivery schedule. One of the advantages of driverless semi trucks is that you can easily take advantage of off-peak hours with minimal traffic. 

Driving in the dead of night is risky since it can quickly induce drowsiness on long haul trips: a danger to your investment, your clients’ freight, your driver, and other drivers on the road. 

With self driving semi trucks, your fleet can keep on trucking without the need for your driver to park at a rest stop for the night. Likewise, self driving semi trucks can easily traffic data and maps from the web to navigate congested city streets, avoiding unnecessary stress and delays.

Fewer to no breaks

The DOT is busy working on improved regulations that will cover driverless semi trucks and robots. The immediate implication is that fleet managers don’t have to worry about their truck drivers complying with stringent logging requirements. 

When it comes to efficiency, the driver is the weakest link: all other transportation systems, including your driverless semi truck, are capable of round-the-clock operations, letting them embark on a run whenever the need arises. 

Your fleet is better off getting off the highway quickly, allowing you to use fewer trucks for the same number of loads. Besides, travel during off-peak hours can be rewarding because you can take advantage of low traffic conditions. 

Better safety record

The premise of a 100% safety record comes from the infallibility of autonomous vehicles. However, there have been reports of incidents where such technology has fallen short, resulting in deadly accidents. 

Once automated trucks stop being baffled in exceptional circumstances, including extreme weather, missing traffic signs, excessive traffic, low light conditions, etc., the sight of a driverless truck would almost be reassuring. It could also result in substantial savings in settlements, insurance claims, accident repairs, and lost time.

Reduced overall expenditures

Improved safety comes from excellent driving, resulting in lower wear and tear. This translates into significant savings on maintenance costs and periodic repair bills. Additionally, lower fuel consumption means lower fuel expenses that can trickle down the supply chain. Successful autonomous trucking will result in a revolution in transportation, with nearly all of it in your favor as a fleet manager.

Disadvantages of Driverless Trucks

As with all things good, there are drawbacks to driverless trucking. Autonomous semi trucks will need to overcome technical problems resulting from algorithms, computational systems, and locomotive machinery. 

System failures

We have all been privy to system failures through the six decades of personal computing. Despite having made all updates, using security software, and even working on a brand new machine, we have all experienced downtime, too. 

Imagine if a fully loaded semi, at 80,000-pounds, was taking directions from such a system. At best, the truck would be at a standstill waiting for instruction; at worst, it may be a danger on the road.

To tide over this problem, engineers have to increase system redundancy, which will raise costs for your business. 

Security threats

As with all electronics systems, those piloting autonomous semi trucks are also susceptible to hackers and other cyber threats. Without a sophisticated tracking system, it’s possible that your autonomous truck could be hijacked and driven across the border before you even detect it’s missing.  

Criminal hacking operations can mean you lose the ability to control your self driving truck. They could lead your vehicles into accidents or sophisticated theft operations where your clients will lose freight. 

Legal liability

The question of legal liability posits an unresolved ethical situation for your company’s legal officer. 

Even a minor accident involving one of your fleet vehicles could raise the question of responsibility. At such a critical juncture, your software could fail. Or, the maintenance module may fail to alert you of worn brake pads. It could even be that you neglected to update the systems onboard with the latest software release. 

Now imagine that your autonomous truck collided with another autonomous truck. Such an incident suddenly raises the question of accountability and liability. 

Lack of human flexibility

As a fleet operator, you are accustomed to the familiarity and flexibility of human interaction with your truck drivers. With the advent of the driverless semi truck, you will lose that comfort, despite all of the efficiencies and predictability. 

You will only be able to manage your fleet based on what can be programmed into the module. Even the most humbly logical additional task you want to accomplish is impossible as an add-on.  

Big Tech oligopoly over the transportation industry

Without human drivers, your entire fleet will depend on periodic software updates for its efficiency. Given how big the autonomous trucking industry will be, eventually these updates will probably all come from Big Tech. You might also find Big Tech controlling other aspects of the industry. 

How could this impact you and your fleet? Imagine that Big Tech develops optimum locations for rest stops to recharge batteries, go in for period testing, etc. In this scenario, you could begin to lose control over personal preferences for your fleet.

Levels of Autonomy in Self-Driving Semi-Trucks 

Autonomy in self driving semi trucks has been graded at six levels based on the amount of human intervention required. 

  1. Level 0 – Zero Automation: Such a vehicle has no driving automation at all. This means the vehicular operation is entirely on the driver, even though there may be a temporary intervention in the form of stability control, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, etc. Most of the semi trucks on the road today are considered level 0. 
  2. Level 1 – Elementary Driving Automation: Level 1 trucks come with the most elementary form of automation, integrating at least one driver support system. Such systems could include electronic assistance with braking, acceleration, or even steering. 
  3. Level 2 – Partial Driving Automation: Trucks that are level 2 must come with an advanced driving assist system (ADAS). Such a system should be able to take over acceleration, braking, or even steering when needed. However, the driver must remain alert and continuously supervise driving operations at the wheel despite such integration.  
  4. Level 3 – Conditional Driving Automation: At this level, we are talking about significant automation to the point that such vehicles (not to mention even higher levels of automation) are not legally permitted on American roadways. Several driver-assistance and artificial intelligence (AI) systems control the truck. While passengers don’t need to supervise technology, a human driver is still expected to take over in the case of an emergency. 
  5. Level 4 – High Driving Automation: Level 4 autonomy does not require any human interaction and can stop in the case of an emergency or system failure. Thus, there is no steering system (wheel or pedals) included. Such technology will take the truck from point A to point B using preprogrammed routes, restricted via geographical boundaries.
  6. Level 5 – Full Driving Automation: Full driving automation allows the driverless truck to go anywhere, through all conditions, without any human interaction. No geofencing is required, nor does the weather play a role. You only have to provide the system with a final destination.  

Frequently Asked Questions: Driverless Trucking

Driverless trucking is well on its way to becoming a reality. However, there are still many questions to be answered and confusion about its actual impact on the transportation industry. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about autonomous semi trucks.

Are there self-driving trucks on the road?

While automated trucks are expected to be a reality in the next decade, currently driverless trucking technology is still in an advanced testing phase. The self driving semi trucks on the road are simply prototypes in terms of hardware and software. Yet, tens of thousands of miles are being driven in tests in the US, and other countries like China— so far, without incident. 

How soon will self-driving trucks take over?

The moment a technology provider has reasonably perfected driverless trucking, they likely bring it to market right away. Still, industry veterans opine that it will be a few more years before driverless trucking is introduced. 

Even then, it will be on limited to long haul routes where data, signage, and symbols have been perfectly regulated. 

Are self-driving trucks a good idea?

The concept of self driving truck companies is an idea whose time has come, especially as more people have access to online shopping. Of course, there are going to be winners and losers. 

If the EU, the US, and other environments can clamp down on Big Tech, as we have seen throughout Europe, fleet operators will be the primary winners compared to drivers. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of truck drivers are looking at job losses at a stage in their careers when upskilling will be difficult for many. 

What’s Next for Self Driving Trucks?

Self-driving trucks continue to improve driving decision-making, even as their conditions become more challenging. For example, during extreme weather conditions with very low visibility, when sometimes even manual driving becomes quite challenging, automated trucks are expected to continue rolling. 

Even ordinary decision-making continues to get more accurate. Besides, we are seeing greater regulation for Big Tech. That’s good news for the trucking and logistics industry, which would otherwise be adversely affected. 

Self-driving truck companies are coming, but it may still be a while before they become a reality. If you’re looking to advance your existing fleet management to improve efficiency and safety in the interim, the team at Intellishift can help you find the right asset management system to meet the needs of your logistics company. Contact us today to discuss the best solution for your fleet. 

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