Automated driving tech is no longer science fiction, but its focus has been largely set on the passenger car. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation may mandate that new light vehicles be equipped with autonomous systems by 2019. The main reason is to minimize driver error, which is responsible for the overwhelming majority of collisions.
But it isn’t just sedans or light vehicles tackling this technological enterprise. The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, for instance, has something larger in the works.
SwRI has been developing and testing a driverless semi-truck, christened “Big Red.” Like driverless passenger cars, Big Red is intended to improve highway safety by replacing the manual element—the driver.
Will self-driving trucks mean safer roads?
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, commercial vehicles were involved in more than 13% of all fatal Texas motor vehicle collisions in 2016 . That’s not to say that the drivers of these larger vehicles were always at fault. But when big vehicles—especially those with heavy cargo—are involved in a collision, the results can be devastating. Given the size, mass and large blind spots of semi-trucks, risks like lane-changing or reacting to a vehicle drifting into their lane without warning are inherently heightened.
But automated tech could detect and prevent such risks well in advance with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) systems, which the DoT predicts will prevent hundreds of thousands of crashes every year.
Using cameras, sensors, and LIDAR, V2V supports high-octane data exchange among vehicles at about 300 meters, updating its broadcast 10 times per second. For truckers, that means near-constant situational awareness, which means more time to react.
Self-driving tech will also employ vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems. Like V2V, it’ll allow vehicles to communicate with highway structures like traffic lights, intersections and roadside equipment. V2I can issue warnings about slippery patches of road ahead, sudden sharp turns, or if a truck is treading too close to the edge of the road .
As for the all-too-common issue of drowsy driving, V2V and V2I may also prove hugely beneficial.
Whereas GPS can be off by a meter, SwRI claims the precision of their systems is down to the nearest inch. Trucks could, thereby, travel in a closely packed caravan in a way humans couldn’t, which can improve fuel economy—a major boon for truck companies.
An MIT study found that trucks traveling in platoons could save as much as 20 percent on fuel costs due to minimized aerodynamic drag. The more trucks in the platoon, the greater the aerodynamic efficiency.
But while trucking companies would reap the benefits, other drivers may not be so keen on a several-hundred-foot wall of semis—especially if they block highway entrances or exits, or make it difficult to pull over in the event of an emergency. Moreover, self-driving tech is poised to eliminate drivers from the equation; in the case of semi-trucks, that could mean a lot of jobs.
What will happen to truckers?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas is home to the most truck drivers of any state, with nearly 176,000 people employed in the field. It’s also one of the most susceptible occupations to automation.
Do self-driving trucks thus pose a major threat to the Lone Star State? It remains to be seen. Big Red is by no means ready to make interstate trips. Nor will truckers be wiped out in one fell swoop. Autonomous systems advance in phases, and these sweeping innovations will likely spur many other types of employment.
However, people simply aren’t comfortable having 40-ton hunks of metal screaming down the highway with no one at the wheel. Sure, these systems may become top-notch, but even the best technologies fail. For self-driving semis, failure is not an option. They’ll need to be able to navigate all types of terrain, road and weather conditions—all while detecting an array of sudden events. Until driverless trucks can demonstrate these feats without a hitch (figuratively speaking), someone will need to be at the wheel.
Haden Kirkpatrick is the Director of Marketing Strategy and Innovation at Esurance, where he is responsible for all initiatives related to product and service innovation. He is passionate about the latest advancements in auto technology and enjoys writing about the future of cars. Find him on Twitter at @HadenKirk.