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Autonomous trucks inch closer to reality

Autonomous trucks could define the future of shipping.
/ Industry News & Trends /

By: Phil Sneed

Self-driving vehicles are a science fiction staple, but this futuristic technology might be closer to reality than many people realize. In the last week, Freightliner gained approval for an autonomous truck, according to Car and Driver, and the vehicle has been licensed for on-road testing in the state of Nevada. 

While driverless vehicles are on American roads, it will be years before these autonomous machines become common. The trucks have the potential to increase efficiency and alleviate some problems caused by the driver shortage and other trucking-industry woes, but drivers will remain a necessary part of the shipping process. As the slow transition to more automated transportation begins, the transportation industry will need to adjust to a new model for how drivers and vehicles interact. 

The truck of tomorrow
The new driverless truck from Freightliner is called the "Inspiration Truck," and includes technology from Daimler Trucks, which owns Freightliner, Car and Driver reported. The truck looks like a traditional semi from the outside and features a luxurious version of a traditional truck interior. 

The inclusion of a traditional steering wheel and other controls might puzzle some observers, but this autonomous truck is not designed to operate without a driver. In fact, the Inspiration Truck will always have a driver behind the wheel, though his or her role in the process will be relatively passive. Wired reported that the truck only drives itself on the highway. Low-speed maneuvering is completely in the driver's hands, and the vehicle's operator must be ready to take the wheel at any time. If the truck encounters a situation that confuses its onboard software, it will give the driver full control until the problem passes. 

Some might wonder what benefits a self-driving truck provides if it still requires a driver. The thinking is that drivers will be able to handle other tasks while the truck steers itself down the highway. This could include tracking shipments or completing other administrative work. If everything works correctly, the driver would be a passenger when the truck was on the highway and an active operator during when navigating more complex streets. 

Autonomous trucks are coming.What does the future of trucking look like?

How autonomy interacts with regulations
The people behind the truck say it offers an easier way for drivers to comply with regulations that have made it difficult to keep shipping costs low for customers, according to Trucking Info. 

"Regulations and law can generate new thinking; they can be a catalyst for change," said Sean Waters, Daimler Trucks director of compliance and regulatory affairs.

Daimler Trucks believes that autonomous trucks could lead to longer allowed hours of service for drivers. The company hopes to show regulators trucks that assist drivers decrease fatigue, which would eliminate a key reason for today's stringent hours-of-service requirements that include burdensome break periods. 

While it's possible widespread adoption of autonomous trucks will decrease the regulatory red tape that impacts drivers every day, it may also increase the amount of training drivers require. These vehicles demand additional operational skills that current truck driving licenses do not account for. 

New requirements for drivers
As of last week, the new Freightliner truck is able to operate on Nevada roadways. Nevada is friendly to autonomous vehicle testing, and the state awarded the first-ever license for an autonomous vehicle to Google in 2012. While the truck can operate on roads in Nevada, drivers must have additional training beyond a standard commercial license. Because drivers will be less involved in operating vehicles and have more time to complete other jobs while on the road, The Washington Post points out these vehicles could become more like mobile offices than traditional trucks. 

The driver shortage continues to be a problem for shippers, and autonomous trucks might not offer a solution. They could, however, change what it means to be a driver substantially. Drivers are already deeply networked with logistics management companies, and this could enhance communication throughout the supply chain, which can result in better efficiency. It's difficult to say when these technologies will become widespread, but it's clear the shipping industry is moving toward a future that will incorporate some of these technologies.