Truck Autonomous is Upon Us

Waymo, Tesla, Uber and a few other lesser known companies have announced in the last two weeks that they have trucks on the road—autonomous trucks (ATs) that is.

Truck Autonomous Highlights

Tesla announced their ATs are in beta mode and are transporting battery packs from Musk’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada to the Tesla factory in Fremont, California.

Uber announced that the company has been using ATs in stealth mode in Arizona in conjunction with cargo transfer terminals. Human drivers bring cargo to the terminals and then it is loaded onto the ATs for the highway portion of the trip. Human drivers then deliver the cargo to local warehouses. Uber Freight makes regular freight hauls on Route 40 and is using dry-van trailers.

A Slate.com post recently criticized Uber for non-transparency. Uber keeps its mileage and other stats a secret obscuring certain metrics such as how many times a driver had to manually intervene. On the other hand, Waymo has a dedicated safety team which publishes its own self-driving safety report, highlighting ongoing challenges, relevant metrics and accomplishments.

Waymo announced the company will begin using ATs in the Atlanta, Georgia region.  In a blog post, Google announced that Atlanta is one of the biggest logistics hubs in the country which makes the city the perfect place for Waymo to test ATs. During the testing phase, the company plans to still have drivers in their cabs to monitor the ATs.

Waymo announced the Class 8 Peterbilt ATs are using sensor systems similar to that of its Chrysler Pacifica minivans currently in use in Arizona. Equipment includes light detection, ranging equipment, radar and vision systems. The minivans already operate at level 4 and Waymo would like for their ATs to operate at level 4 soon.

Overview and Oversight

Over 70 percent of goods in the U.S. are shipped via truck which for years has been pushing the demand for truck drivers. Currently, the trucking industry reports that it needs at least 50,000 drivers. ATs would make long haul drivers a thing of the past. ATs would not have work shift limits and would allow goods to move more frequently, more quickly and less expensively.

All this AT testing is being done with no clear federal regulations nor any standards in how to move goods autonomously from one place to another.  Competition is fierce in this sector and most companies but not all are keeping their data under wraps.

Obviously, many decisions have to be made on the road and ATs need much more complex software interacting with various devices to make it all work. Crashes due to unanticipated conditions might harm other human drivers. Also, cyberattacks and outright piracy of the trucks might also be a factor that fleet owners and those driving near ATs will be faced with in the future.

Platooning which means multiple trucks pushed close together to reduce road space requirement and wind resistance will also be a factor for motorists to contend with in the near future. ATs platooned together will act as one unit. Lead truck brakes, all the trucks brake. When ATs reach level 5 autonomous driving, there will be no more cabs for drivers but just a little nub on the front attached to a trailer.

Human-driving Cars vs. ATs

Unfortunately, motorists will have to contend with long rows of semis driving the speed limit which could block lane changes, highway entrances and exits and be problematic for moving over for emergency vehicles and pulling over to the shoulder in case of other emergencies.

Can human motorists handle these big beast machines with no drivers? Even the best technologies fail and ATs need to navigate geography, road and weather conditions, and sudden events. Can we trust our safety to algorithms?

What the Feds Are Doing About It

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced in January that a number of Federal agencies are asking for feedback on ATs and other commercial driverless vehicles:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants comments on unnecessary regulatory barriers for driverless vehicles and how their safety should be tested and certified. The NHTSA though plans to keep a hands off approach to regulating technology and is only interested in the outcomes.

Federal Transit Administration will look for feedback on automated buses and the Federal Highway Administration will seek public input on driverless modes for U.S. highways.

Teamsters have also been talking to Congress about the loss of driving jobs whenever this technology becomes mainstream. The U.S. House passed legislation in September that did not include ATs. Currently, the U.S. Senate bill has stalled due to safety concerns.

Despite all this back and forth with Congress and the U.S. DOT, companies continue to forge ahead with testing ATs on public roads not waiting for regulations or standards.

A bit like the Wild West perhaps…

 

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