Is there a Driver in that Truck?

While fully autonomous trucks are likely decades away, new technologies will be incorporated into trucks to help prevent catastrophic truck crashes often attributed to human error and negligence

Trucking is big business. A really big business. Moving freight across America takes a lot of trucks and that adds up. Because of the vast size of the freight business, approximately a trillion dollars a year, it means innovations that can save a few percent can mean very significant profits for those able to take advantage of those technologies.

This is one reason why the first application on a large scale of autonomous vehicles is likely to occur within interstate trucking business. These trucks, many of which can be seen on a daily basis streaming along such major interstates as I-40, I-65, I-75 and I-24 in Tennessee, travel long distances on these highways.

The uniform nature of the interstate highway system makes it easier to program the self-driving systems that will control these trucks, and it makes the sensor technology simpler. Navigating along crowded and congested local streets, with random name changes, parked cars, bicycles, motorcycles, driveways, complex intersections and turn signals is much more difficult. Developing control algorithms for the simpler environment of interstate driving is much more straightforward and easier to successfully develop.

The human element

Trucking companies would like to eliminate the human driver from trucks for many reasons. Drivers are a very expensive component of the operation of trucks, and eliminating them brings immediate cost savings. Humans are also the most fragile part of the equation. They become sleepy, they must stop and eat, they may make very poor driving decisions, such as operating beyond their hours of service limits or using drugs to extend their ability to drive these hours.

They may illegally use alcohol or text while driving. Moreover, after driving hundreds of miles during a day, they may lose focus and their minds may wander. If that occurs when a vehicle changes lanes in front of them unexpectedly, or there is congestion due to road construction or some other reason, like a previous crash, the consequences may be catastrophic and devastating to motorists in the cars around them.

Potentially errorless driving

Some of this technology is already available. The first wave of "smarter" trucks will be equipped with these systems, which will not entirely replace human drivers but will instead augment their abilities.

Automatic braking capabilities will be integrated into cruise control and will prevent the horrific scenario of a semi-truck traveling at highway speeds crashing into congested traffic that has stopped or slowed in its lane.

These devices will not be subject to fatigue or inattention like human drivers and no matter how long the truck has been on the road will be instantly ready to bring the truck to a safely controlled stop.

They will also have additional systems, like lane departure warning, which will also help prevent loss of control incidents, when a driver allows a truck to drift out of its lane onto the shoulder or median. In some cases, the driver will attempt to regain their lane and overcorrect, causing a loss of stability and inducing the truck to jackknife, rollover or some other catastrophic truck accident.

Fully autonomous trucks may have to wait

These systems will not only enhance the capabilities of a truck driver and reduce some of the nearly 4,000 deaths each year that involve large trucks. These control systems will also be constantly monitoring the operation of the truck and allowing the ever more refinements to be made to these systems. Eventually, the machine learning of the algorithms may permit them to essentially write their own code, making them a true example of artificial intelligence.

Driving: more difficult than it looks

This may be 20 years or more into the future. As researchers have examined it more closely, it has been discovered just how complex an activity driving a vehicle really is. Significant changes in the way much infrastructure is conceived and constructed will be necessary, and sensor technology will need to advance.

Security will also be a significant component of this system. With billions of dollars of cargo and millions of motorist's lives at stake every day, the systems will need to be secure from outside hacking, in order to prevent cargo from being highjacked. It will also need to be designed to "fail safe," so that the equivalent of a "blue screen of death" won't take on a literal meaning.