Last summer, I wrote an article about the future of electric trucks. Notably, I outlined that the industry was ready to transition to zero-emission trucks and that a number of major manufacturers including Tesla, Daimler, Thor, and Toyota had unveiled electric class-8 trucks while UPS, FedEx and DHL had unveiled electric class-6 parcel trucks. But now the big question is whether the industry is ready for autonomous trucks.
The jury is clearly still out on autonomous trucks – there have been plenty of pilots and publicity, but are self-driving trucks ready to take to the roads in a critical mass? One of the biggest drivers for self-driving trucks is the driver shortage which continues to grow every year. However, as we’ve pointed out multiple times, autonomous trucks are not the quick solution to the driver shortage. In fact, similar to autonomous robots within the warehouse, autonomous trucks are not here to replace human drivers. Instead, they are here to collaborate with drivers to make the task easier.
With any autonomous truck, a driver still needs to be in the cab to take the controls for highway entry and exit, as well as during traffic congestion or in the crowded streets of cities. During the long haul, the autonomous truck allows the driver to complete other tasks, such as completing invoices and other tireless paperwork. Once the truck gets to the dock, drivers and warehouse workers are still required to unload the truck and load any new items in the truck for the journey back.
So what exactly does the future of autonomous trucks look like? Well, there are multiple companies out there developing and testing autonomous trucks today.
Autonomous Truck Development
Embark is a San Francisco-based company that was founded in2016. The trucks lets the system take over for the long haul, with the driver taking over when the truck exits the freeway, to navigate the more complex roads of towns and cities themselves. The company does not actually build its own autonomous trucks; instead, it integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt semis. Recently, Embark trucks were spotted driving down I-10 with Amazon trailers as part of their latest test runs.
Daimler / Mercedes launched its first autonomous vehicle in 2014, called the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025. The vehicle used a system called the Highway Pilot to navigate highways without human assistance. The majority of Daimler’s efforts have been on platooning technology, which involves a number of trucks equipped with state-of-the-art driving support systems. The vehicles move in a group or platoon with the trucks driven by smart technology and communicating with one another. Each of the trucks still has a driver onboard for safety and for taking over when exiting the freeway. Since then, the company has pledged to invest $573 million in its autonomous truck efforts.
Volvo has also shown off its autonomous truck platooning technology over the last couple of years. In its tests, the lead truck demonstrated the connectivity that is required for platooning, controlling the accelerator and brakes for the following trucks as well. But Volvo has moved beyond platooning; earlier this year, Volvo deployed its first commercial solution in Norway. The program consists of limestone being transported by six autonomous Volvo FH trucks on a 5 km stretch through tunnels, between the mine itself and the crusher. This is the first step for Volvo in making its autonomous trucks a market reality.
Tesla has been front and center of the autonomous truck debate for the last few years. And the company has run multiple tests on the road to move cargo from one location to another using autonomous trucks. While Tesla’s big goal has been the launch of its all electric trucks, autonomous trucks will continue to be a big part of the company’s future.
These are just a few of the companies that are making the push into autonomous trucks. The truck driver shortage is certainly not going away. However, with autonomous trucks, drivers could use the time in the truck to complete other tasks for the company. This essentially gives the “driver” double duty, which will also save the company time, money, and resources. For example, drivers could complete invoices and send them out while the truck drives itself. Conversely, if human drivers are not needed in the truck, it might be the beginning of figuring out a solution to the driver shortage. Either way, the companies mentioned above will continue to innovate to make the autonomous truck a reality in the potentially not-so-distant future.