Trucks without drivers

Oct. 13, 2014
Not because you can’t find them, but because the truck doesn’t need them

About a year ago, I asked readers for their non-traditional ideas on solving the driver shortage.  Trucks that drive themselves were suggested by more than a few, and they were only half kidding.  Now it looks like they may get their wish.

The main push for autonomous vehicles is currently focused on automobiles, and the driving (or is that driverless?) motivation is safety.  Despite air bags, ABS, crash protection standards and other safety mandates, motor vehicle accidents account for some 33,000 deaths a year, and it’s estimated that 90% of those are caused by human error.  Take the human out of the equation and deaths due to error should drop dramatically, or at least that’s the reasoning.

Since long-haul truck drivers spend so much time on the road, their exposure to accidents caused by human error is much higher than the average car driver.  Usually, though, the threat comes from those operating cars, not the professional truck operators who count many million-mile accident-free drivers among their ranks.  Fleet interest in self-driving trucks is focused more on productivity; that is, moving more freight with fewer of those scarce human drivers.  And if you think about it, long-haul heavy trucks are actually better candidates than cars for autonomous operation.  Unlike cars, they travel the majority of their miles on highways at constant speeds for extended periods. 

It won’t happen overnight, but trucks have already taken a few small but meaningful steps in that direction.  Smart cruise control that can automatically adjust the truck’s speed to that of vehicles in front of it was one early example.  Before too long, lane departure warning systems will move beyond alerts and nudge a wandering vehicle back into its lane.  The same sensors that drive those systems are now preloading brake systems for faster response when they detect a problem, and as we’ve seen in automobiles, they will soon be able to bring a truck to a full stop in an emergency situation without any driver intervention.  Within the next few months, we’ll even have automated transmissions that can “see” up to three miles down the road, shifting gears and modulating engine speed in anticipation of grades to maximize fuel economy.

Providing a preview of fully driverless operation, Peterbilt Motors has just demonstrated a concept truck that can navigate the last mile without a driver in the seat.  For example, the driver could leave it at the fuel pump to go off duty, and the truck would park itself after being fueled, giving the driver as much as another hour of driving time.

Taking a different approach, Daimler has demonstrated a truck that uses advanced communications to maneuver around slow traffic or obstacles without driver imput.  A joint venture from ZF and Bosch has shown a truck that can be driven from outside the cab using a touchscreen phone or tablet, and Volvo is working on trucks that can lead platoons of cars and other trucks, freeing their drivers from those chores.

By most estimates, a fully autonomous tractor-trailer is probably a decade or more away.  In fact, Paul Menig, an engineer with lots of truck design experience, believes trucks will always have a driver behind the wheel.  In his view, the technology will function more like today’s autopilot on commercial aircraft.

If that’s the case, I wonder how drivers will log those hours.

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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