Are autonomous, self-driving vehicles inevitable? And if so, how is this going to impact the trucking and transportation industry?
What is a Self Driving Vehicle?
First it helps to understand the technology currently available. While the terms “autonomous” and “self driving” are sometimes used interchangeably, they mean two different things. Autonomous vehicles look much like our current cars and trucks: steering wheel, pedals, gear shift, etc. A person can drive the car, but they can also turn on an autopilot feature and let the vehicle do the work.
Self-driving cars are another animal completely. These vehicles have no steering wheel, no pedals, nothing that a driver would need to safely operate the vehicle. A driver is unnecessary to the operation of this vehicle. It’s not completely unheard of. Google’s Self-Driving Car Project has over 50 vehicles roaming the streets of California, Texas, and Washington, logging 10 to 15 thousand miles a week.
What About Safety?
While many of us believe self-driving passenger vehicles are inevitable, the biggest concern raised is over safety. How do we rely on these vehicles and can they truly factor in everything that affects the driving experience? With sensors, radar, and other technology, it’s likely these vehicles can. Google’s project is a good test.
But there are other issues for consideration. Cybersecurity will be a big issue, especially for the trucking industry. If systems and vehicles are hacked, shipments could end up in the wrong location or vehicles could be driven right into obstructions. If an accident like that occurs, the next question that will need to be answered is: who has the liability? The company making the shipment or the technology company who created the software?
How Would This Work in the Trucking Industry?
There are plenty of ideas about how to possibly make self-driving trucks a reality. First, these trucks would have to be shown to be safe. Likely, autonomous vehicles would be used first before graduating to self-driving vehicles. In theory, the process may look something like this:
- Fleets of unmanned vehicles travel the highways, likely at night, to centralized locations.
- The last part of a trip may have a person in the vehicle or possibly driving.
- When no driver is present in the vehicle, vehicle “pilots” may be sitting at a giant console watching over multiple self-driving trucks at once.
- Field technicians would work specific geographic areas to deal with inevitable breakdowns.
Goods could potentially be delivered quickly and more efficiently with less fuel used and fewer accidents. That is, at least, the theory.
Most experts agree that while the technology is on track to be available sooner rather than later, the delay will come from public acceptance. Until manufacturers and technology companies can show that self driven commercial trucks are just as safe, if not safer, than traditionally driven trucks, the idea of fleets of unmanned trucks on the highways still has a long road to travel.