Autonomous Trucks May Be Driving California Highways in 5 Years

Autonomous vehicles could arrive in the form of a large truck on the interstate. Change may occur very quickly and it is unclear how safe it may be during that initial testing.

Trucks are a major presence on the highways of California. More than $3 trillion dollars worth of freight annually moves into, through and out of California and much of that freight is moving by truck. While that movement provides a great many jobs and involves much of the food and other products purchased by millions of Americans, it comes at a cost separate from the economic price of the goods.

Truck crashes in 2015 caused 296 deaths in California, according to preliminary numbers from the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration. That year, nationwide, there were 83,000 crashes involving large truck, causing 4,067 fatalities and leaving 116,000 individuals injured.

When a truck crashes, it is often driver error. Humans suffer many weaknesses when it comes to driving, from alcohol and drug impairment to distraction and fatigue, and the vast majority of crashes are due to human error and negligence.

Self-driving trucks

Conceptually, the easy solution is to eliminate the fallible human in this equation. A computer suffers from none of the failings of the human driver. It never takes drugs, is never impaired, never fatigued, always alert to other traffic, the road conditions and the weather.

It also never needs to stop for a break or to eat, visit a restroom or take a nap. Such a computer-driven truck would not have to stop because the driver had maxed out their driving time for the day or week. And it should never plow into stopped traffic because the driver was drowsy or reading a text.

Change happens quickly

The economies of scale within transportation are so great that these changes may arrive very quickly. One expert noted he had revised his projections this year from 15-20 years in the future, to five years. Last year, one company, OTTO, demonstrated a test run of a self-driving truck. A state trooper described how the truck recognized slowing traffic ahead and began slowing down far sooner than he did.

These systems are still in the initial development stage and are likely to be viewed as primitive within a short time. Experts suggest change will happen very fast. One company points out that 6.9 billion hours are wasted every year with trucks, and that creates a tremendous incentive for the cost efficiencies that autonomous trucks would bring.

Platooning

The first semi-autonomous semi-trucks will probably employ "Platooning," where a lead truck with a human driver is followed very closely by additional trucks. These truck will likely first use drivers, who will do little more than ride along in case there is a system failure. Eventually they will transition to become driverless.

These platoons with 3-5 trucks could cross long distances of California, saving fuel and the cost of drivers. The experience with these trucks will rapidly be used to eliminate the human driver altogether.

SAE Level 5

SAE Level 5 is classification automotive engineers have developed for fully self-driving trucks. We are not there yet. This technology is likely to then make its way into passenger vehicles, especially for fleet users like Uber and Lyft, where again, the economies of scale in eliminated human drivers make it irresistible.

Safety for all?

This presumes that all of the technology works. Even a company with resources a deep and vast as Google has struggled to develop this enormously complex technology. It remains to be seen how safe these types of technology will be when deployed in the real world on a large scale. Until they are perfected, system failures could lead to additional deadly vehicle crashes. There is also a question of regulation, with government regulators attempting to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology.

The National Safety Council notes that since 1994, traffic fatalities have been responsible for more than 737,000 deaths. Last year may mark the second year in a row that those numbers have increased and could, for the first time in more than a decade, approach 40,000. During that time, millions have suffered injuries that left them with varying degrees of disabilities and pain.

If this technology comes to fruition, it could greatly reduce those numbers and not only save millions of dollars in transportation costs, but the unspeakable emotional pain of their families and the billions lost to society by theses deaths and injuries.