Autonomous trucking, once a mere concept of science fiction, is steadily progressing towards becoming a reality in the world of freight operations. Through years of investment, development, and extensive testing, technology developers, truck manufacturers, and industry suppliers have come together to overcome technical challenges and operational considerations to pave the way for unmanned trucks on interstate highways.
The potential benefits of autonomous trucks are vast, with proponents emphasizing the significant efficiency and productivity gains that could be unlocked while simultaneously improving highway safety. Several technology developers have already initiated partnerships with shippers, carriers, and logistics providers to transport freight using self-driving trucks on public roads. Although these trucks still have safety drivers and operations specialists onboard, the ultimate goal for these developers is to achieve unmanned operation in the near future.
To enable autonomous operation, commercial trucks are equipped with advanced computing systems that support automated driving software, as well as sensor arrays comprising cameras, radar, and lidar to monitor the vehicle’s surroundings. While the primary focus is on unmanned operation, autonomous truck developers aim to complement the existing trucking industry’s workforce rather than replace it.
It is important to note that autonomous trucks are not intended to cover every transportation need or haul every type of freight. These trucks are designed to operate within specific routes and under certain conditions. This involves defining an operational design domain (ODD), which outlines the operating conditions that the autonomous driving system is equipped to handle. By constraining autonomous trucks to more repeatable routes suited for automation, the complexity of the problem is reduced, leaving challenging routes and driving situations to human drivers.
Autonomous trucking envisions a new mode of transportation that shippers, carriers, and logistics providers can consider when planning freight movement. However, it is crucial to understand that autonomous trucks will only travel on predetermined routes and specific conditions. As a result, the trucking industry will continue to rely on professional truck drivers to support the nation’s supply chain and economy. In fact, the industry will need to recruit more drivers as freight volumes increase over time. Nonetheless, autonomous trucks have the potential to alleviate the industry’s struggles with driver recruitment and mitigate high turnover rates, particularly in long-haul trucking.
Although the deployment and commercialization of autonomous trucks have progressed at a slightly slower pace than initially anticipated, significant strides have been made. One critical aspect of development work revolves around designing autonomous driving systems capable of responding to rare or unexpected events, commonly known as edge cases, such as road obstructions.
In recent news, self-driving truck developer TuSimple announced plans to conduct driverless freight runs for Union Pacific Railroad between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona in February 2022. Currently, autonomous truck developers primarily operate in the U.S. Sunbelt, especially in Southwestern states like Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. These regions offer favorable weather conditions and regulatory environments conducive to testing and eventual nationwide deployment.
Q: Will autonomous trucks replace human drivers?
A: No, autonomous trucks are designed to complement the existing workforce rather than displace it.
Q: What is an operational design domain (ODD)?
A: An operational design domain refers to a set of operating conditions that an autonomous driving system is designed to handle.
Q: How will autonomous trucks impact the trucking industry?
A: Autonomous trucks have the potential to ease driver recruitment struggles and mitigate high turnover rates while supporting the industry’s growth and addressing increasing freight volumes.
Q: Are autonomous trucks currently in operation?
A: Yes, autonomous truck developers have initiated partnerships and are operating self-driving trucks on specific routes under certain conditions, albeit with safety drivers and operations specialists onboard.
Q: What challenges do autonomous truck developers face?
A: Autonomous truck developers need to design systems capable of handling rare or unexpected events, along with addressing regulatory and logistical considerations for widespread adoption.