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Self-Driving Trucks Could Hit Public Roads Before Self-Driving Cars

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【Summary】While most popular automobile brands, such as Ford, BMW and Chrysler, focus on passenger vehicles, other companies are applying autonomous technology to commercial trucks. In fact, some analysts believe that self-driving trucks will beat self-driving cars in the race to release a reliable autonomous vehicle on public roads.

Original Michael Cheng    Oct 23, 2016 6:45 PM PT

By Michael Cheng

Consumers won't be able to buy a fully autonomous car for some time. There are still numerous technological, legislative and infrastructure hurdles that the nascent sector must overcome before their offerings hit mainstream markets.

While most popular automobile brands, such as Ford, BMW and Chrysler, focus on passenger vehicles, other companies are applying autonomous technology to commercial trucks. In fact, some analysts believe that self-driving trucks will beat self-driving cars in the race to release a reliable autonomous vehicle on public roads.

"I really think I'm probably one of the last generations of truckers. I don't think it will be around for my kids or my grandkids, but fun to try it while it's still here," said Fred Rush, a professional truck driver, during an interview with NPR.

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Fit for Self-Driving Tech

Many people assume that trucks, due to their large and bulky size, are unfit for self-driving technology. But this assumption, according to Alain Kornhauser (Autonomous Vehicle Engineering program leader at Princeton University), is far from true. Commercial trucks that specialize in long-haul routes are ideal vessels for autonomous driving features. This is because the vehicles spend most of their time on highways and open roads. The trucks rarely encounter busy pedestrians, fickle-minded cyclists and children playing on the sidewalk. Furthermore, the lanes are typically well marked and other cars on the highway are more predictable. 

Kornhauser's reasoning behind the viability of self-driving trucks is supported by Dmitri Dolgov's views on the learning curve of driving. Dolgov, self-driving software lead at Google, believes that 90 percent of driving, which involves crossing intersections and navigating highways, can easily be automated. These aspects are also scenarios that self-driving trucks are most likely to encounter on the road.   

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Job Security and Semi-Autonomous Platforms

Fleets of self-driving trucks may one day replace human drivers, but it won't happen any time soon. Such capabilities rely on a very high level of autonomy and endless miles of updated roadways. Before these requirements come to fruition, trucks will receive semi-autonomous features that would allow individuals to take a backseat approach to driving. Using a set of monitors, sensors and on-board computing systems, professionals could oversee navigation, while decreasing stress associated with long-haul driving. It would also improve safety for drivers and other nearby cars, through the reduction of human error-related accidents.  

For businesses, self-driving trucks could lower service costs and improve efficiency rates. Human truck drivers are susceptible to a long list of illnesses and are naturally prone to making errors under stressful situations, especially during long-haul routes. Because of this, it is common for companies to offer full medical coverage and incentives to keep drivers healthy. Semi-autonomous trucks could ease such requirements by decreasing time spent actively driving.

"They can have all sorts of screens in front of them to do whatever things they need to do," explained Kornhauser. "And instead of being stuck in some cubicle in some building with no windows to look out, they have a perfect view of the world as they're traveling down the road."

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