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Are Self-driving Trucks The Future of Freight Trucking?

As soon as Daimler released the self-driving Freightliner Inspiration, an autonomous class 8 truck, this past May, a conversation that had been slowly growing on the margins of the industry was instantly rocketed into the spotlight.

The technology that they’re built on and how they’ll affect the role of drivers in the years and decades to come have sparked some intense debates throughout the freight world. It’s easy to balk at any change to the status quo, and newer isn’t always better, but savvy owners and drivers don’t want to get left behind by the changing landscape either.

Let’s a take a look at some of the facts about the technology, the key issues in the debate over their use, and how they may change the industry forever.

What Does Self-driving Really Mean?

First things first, it’s important to remember that autonomous vehicles in the US are judged on a four level system, and the Freightliner Inspiration (and other trucks that are sure to follow in its footsteps) are only level 3 vehicles - meaning they are never expected to function without a driver.

They feature what the NHTSA defines as “limited self-driving automation,” and that’s just what it sounds like: in some limited situations, i.e. on a highway, in good conditions, the truck is able to drive itself. If you’re worried that self-driving trucks are going to start replacing real drivers anytime soon remember that these vehicles can’t even drive themselves on surface roads.

The new technology combines cameras and two types of radar to manage speed and lane position within the highway environment. However, a licensed driver has to be in the seat at all times, ready to take control if conditions change.

If a transition out of autonomous mode is necessary, i.e. an exit is coming up, the truck’s system alerts the driver with enough time to comfortably take control. In fact, if might be better to think of the technology as a much advanced cruise control.

Both Sides of the Issue

Early skeptics of the autonomous truck systems point to perceived shortcomings in a handful of areas including security, driver disengagement, and the high cost of transitioning a fleet to this new technology.

Whether or not a truck’s guidance system could be remotely infiltrated, exposing drivers and cargo to major risks, has been a major point of contention. Freightliner has been quick to point out however that the truck’s guidance system is not accessible via the internet, and is totally self contained.

Concerns about driver disengagement focus on the perceived lack of driver participation, but that may be blown out of proportion. The current system has many, many shortcomings when it comes to navigation, even on the highway - alert, engaged drivers are still a key part of the system.  In fact, the idea of the autonomous system as an advanced cruise control is especially apt—without a driver the truck can’t even change lanes.

As far as the cost of transitioning a fleet to the new technology are concerned, it’s hard to argue that such a major turnover carries a serious price tag. One way to help mitigate this big, up front sticker price is to work with a freight factoring company to ensure you have a good cash supply on hand at all times, regardless of big investments you make in your fleet.

There’s also serious fuel savings to be had with an autonomous fleet, which is able to safely platoon together on the highway at only 25 feet apart, increasing the aerodynamic performance of all the vehicles and resulting in a 5 or 6 percent boost in efficiency.