Trucking is the dominant mode of US inland freight transport; it amounts to billions of tons and is projected to continue to climb in the coming years.1
The term autonomous trucks is applied to trucks that will be controlled from other sources such as satellites and advanced GPS (Global Positioning Systems), models currently on the road already provide a semi-autonomous mode of operation, in which the unmanned system and/or a human operator conduct a mission, have various levels of human-robot interaction. In the fully autonomous mode of operation, the unmanned system is expected to accomplish its mission, within a defined scope, without human intervention. In the teleoperation mode of operation, the human operator, using video feedback and/or other sensory feedback, either directly controls the actuators or assigns incremental goals, waypoints in mobility situations, on a continuous basis, from off the vehicle and via a tethered or radio linked control device. And, finally, in the remote control mode of operation, the human operator, without benefit of video or other sensory feedback, directly controls the actuators of the unmanned system on a continuous basis, from a location off the vehicle and via a tethered radio linked control device using visual line-of-sight cues.2
By 2027 fully autonomous trucks, including truck platoons of two or more trucks in which all trucks have a driver, but only the driver of the lead truck has full control of the vehicle, are anticipated to appear on highways.3 In spite of this transition, it is anticipated that the delivery of goods and services will be much the same as it has been for decades in the sense that drivers remain critical to the process.
There continues to be truck driver shortages with current estimates showing that there are approximately 50,000 qualified drivers short of what demand can handle.4 As drivers are leaving or retiring from the industry, there are efforts to recruit additional drivers. Replacement drivers are offered signing bonuses, higher pay and generous benefits packages to include college tuition. Other efforts include lowering the age to allow 18-21 year-olds to drive 80,000-pound rigs across the country. These proposals are projected to be successful.5 Overall, retention of truck drivers could improve if the long-haul portion of the route becomes self-driving, lessening time drivers spend away from home—a key reason long-haul drivers leave the profession, according to many stakeholders. As with the driverless scenario, many stakeholders believe future developments are so uncertain that they can not predict how automated trucking would affect various aspects of the workforce, such as wages or retention.6
Implementation of autonomous trucks is expected in ‘waves’ as technology improves and cost effectiveness is assessed. Despite the economic motivation, many in the trucking industry doubt whether driverless trucks are feasible in the foreseeable future given the current horizon of autonomous technology.7 As long as the technology used for autonomous vehicles faces additional challenges, it is anticipated that these obstacles will continue to promote innovation to ensure safer roads and compliance with Federal regulations. New materials, compact electronics, advances in telecommunications along with guidelines for emissions, fuel efficiency and safety will bring this industry to heightened levels of automation.8
Although there is considerable interest and excitement surrounding highly automated vehicles (HAV’s), safety is the most important goal. For 2019, fatality estimates prepared by the National Safety Council are estimated to be at the 40,000 mark.9 Lastly, 94 percent of crashes can be tied to a human choice or error.10
The benefits don’t stop with safety. Innovations in this field have the potential to transform personal mobility and open doors to people and communities—people with disabilities, aging populations, communities where car ownership is prohibitively expensive, or those who prefer not to drive or own a car—that today have limited or impractical options. Cities will reconsider how space is utilized and how public transit is provided. Infrastructure capacity could be increased without pouring a single new truck load of concrete. HAVs may also have the potential to save energy and reduce air pollution from transportation through efficiency and by supporting vehicle electrification.11 Further, truck platooning reduces wind resistance, thereby saving fuel: around 10% for a following truck, 5% for the lead truck.12