Techno-optimist prognosticators will tell you that driverless trucks are just around the corner. They will also gently tell you--always gently--that yes, truck driving, a job that nearly 3.7 million Americans perform today, is perhaps on the brink of extinction. A startup called Peloton Technology sees the future a bit differently. Based in Mountain View, California, the eight-year-old company has a plan to broadly commercialize a partially automated truck technology called platooning. It would still depend on drivers sitting in front of a steering wheel, but it would be more fuel efficient and, hopefully, safer than truck-based transportation today.
German automaker Daimler AG's trucks division said it would test a new technology called'platooning' on U.S. roads, allowing large digitally-connected trucks to save fuel by driving closely together, with one vehicle following the other. Daimler's announcement, and promises on Monday by rivals Navistar International Corp and Volkswagen AG to field a medium duty electric truck by 2019, highlight a race among global commercial truck makers to deploy new technology both to anticipate regulatory mandates and influence policy debates. Trucking industry executives are gathering this week at the North American Commercial Vehicle show in Atlanta as the U.S. medium and heavy truck market is emerging from a slump. Daimler AG's trucks will save fuel by driving closely together, with one vehicle following the other. The test will allow large digitally-connected trucks to save fuel by driving closely together.
Tesla is working on electric, self-driving trucks that can travel in "platoons" or road trains capable of following a lead vehicle, according to leaked correspondence with regulators. The electric truck, which is due to be unveiled in September by Elon Musk's electric vehicle company, is close to prototype on-road testing, with both Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and California officials in talks to permit trials on public roads, according to documents seen by Reuters. In an email to the Nevada DMV, Tesla sought permission to "operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the states of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle", which would be one of the first tests not including a human driver in the vehicle if permitted. The correspondence and meetings with state officials show that Tesla moving forward in a highly competitive area of commercial transport also being pursued by Uber and Alphabet's former Google car company, now called Waymo. While Musk has previously stated aims to build an electric truck, Tesla has yet to announce any autonomous driving aims for the vehicles, which are seen as the next evolution of greener and safer road freight.
While self-driving trucks and self-driving cars make use of much of the same technology to power their AI systems, it would be a mistake to think the expected roll out date of both developments to would be identical. The sheer weight of semi trucks creates unique technological challenges compared to self-driving cars. The substantial weight of trucks means the time it takes to stop a them is much longer than cars, and trucks have less ability to swerve to avoid an accident. At the same, the way the way trucks are deployed creates possible uses of autonomy which would be economically viable for commercial trucks but not commercial cars. For example, some trucks will spend their entire lifecycle operating on only a limited piece of private property, such as a mine, which simplifies the legal and technical issues with creating an autonomous system.
The trucks going down the road a decade from now will likely not look drastically different than they do today. And, despite all the hype over autonomous trucks, they probably will still have drivers. It's what's going on behind the dashboard and over the air that is truly exciting as we enter a new generation of smart and connected trucks. Class 8 trucks being introduced today are preloaded with an impressive -- and expandable -- suite of electronics and wireless communication capabilities. Over the next decade, experts say, those capabilities will exponentially expand the efficiency, safety, productivity, and visibility of commercial trucks hauling freight -- in ways that could fundamentally transform trucking and logistics in the 21st century. The three technologies driving these changes are vehicle connectivity, artificial intelligence, and autonomous operating systems. Many of the systems that will enable these changes are already on trucks today.