Does the thought of self-driving freight trucks cause you concern for the viability of your trucking company or your career as a truck driver? According to truck industry experts, it shouldn’t. It’s an exciting age we live in as start-up tech companies and media headlines eagerly shout out success in trucking technology. Yet, transportation industry experts agree that trucking is a long, long way out from becoming a driverless industry. A young driver entering the market today will, in all likelihood, retire a much older driver with decades of in-cab experience to memorialize.
But as the world rapidly changes and automation takes over more and more tasks, truck company owners have to keep pace. Fleets need to be informed of these developments to determine when the time is right to embrace new technologies in order to maximize their impact on operations. Being aware of new technology in the trucking industry, what automations are being approved by law and what equipment is likely to produce the highest efficiencies will be an ongoing task.
This article is intended to help you understand the progression of driverless trucks – where trucking AI is now, where it’s going and how long before fully automated self-driving trucks take over the industry. Spoiler alert – it’s going to be decades and decades before drivers are no longer needed in-cab to operate rigs through all conditions and across all jurisdictions.
A brief history of technology in trucking
The first semi-truck was invented in Cleveland, Ohio in 1898 – that’s just over 120 years ago. During its short history, advancements in technology in the trucking industry were shaped by world events such as two world wars, mass infrastructure developments, energy and environmental concerns. New trucking technology created dramatic turning points in the industry. But what changed the industry the most was the development of computers and the automation of transport systems.
Trucks first came out with automated features such as blind-spot warning back in the 1990s. The system would beep, vibrate or light up a warning at which time the driver was required to react to the situation. That was the introduction of Level 0 automation. Today manufacturers are testing Level 4 trucks – vehicles that have the ability to drive themselves from point A to point B without a driver being in control. But, these autonomous vehicles will only drive themselves under limited conditions. Environmental conditions, road conditions, high traffic in congested urban areas and many more variables will dictate the need for a human operator to take control when needed.
The next and final level of autonomous trucks is Level 5. These trucks will have the ability to drive themselves in any conditions without human intervention. Experts agree that these self-driving trucks will eventually make their way to market, but they are still a long way off. The continuing development of trucking technology will one day deliver fully automated driving systems (ADS) that can handle the whole task of driving, but it’s not anytime soon. Development, testing, government regulations, infrastructure and industry acceptance on large scale will have to take place before driverless trucks become the norm. Industry experts are predicting a very long lead time before Level 4 and Level 5 trucks are fully operational throughout the industry.
What are the 5 levels of Automation?
The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed the current standards which defines the range of automation with 5 levels:
So, what’s the hold up?
Despite rapidly advancing technologies, the transformation to autonomous vehicles will not happen overnight. Operational and regulatory obstacles will slow the progress of Level 4 technology from being implemented quickly making Level 5 automation a very distant goal. Following are some of the biggest challenges yet to be conquered before ADS takes over the industry:
Regulations – Once driverless trucks are available for commercial use, they will need to operate according to the laws and regulations of each jurisdiction they operate in. Here’s the thing – government rules are not only restrictive and fragmented limiting trucking technology innovations, they also take years to create and pass into law.
Scalability – Technology is a tricky thing. Autonomous truck startups have to make critical early decisions as to what core technologies to build or not build and what to sell. If fleet owners jump on the bandwagon too early, they may end up overpaying for the technology or being the guinea pig for an unproven trucking technology that is not reliable. Truck companies will be slow to embrace these new technologies all at once.
Most analysts agree that it will be 2024 or 2025 before Level 4 autonomous trucks come onto the open market. Some say it will be 2030 before any big breakthroughs allow ADS trucks to become commercially viable. Once introduced to the market, it will be many more years before standardization and infrastructure developments allows for the efficient use of large-scale deployment of driverless trucks.
Legal – At the present time, there’s no clear path to suing an autonomous truck that strikes pedestrians or other vehicles leading to damage, injury or death. According to current liability laws, self-driving truck companies who makes the equipment cannot be sued. New liability laws will need to be written and passed into law before driverless trucks take over the roads of our nation. As we all know, the passing of government laws is no quick process.
What does this mean for drivers?
The further development and growing availability of self-driving trucks will definitely have an impact on the transportation industry, but few believe it will result in a sudden or massive decrease in the need for human drivers. Many industry analysts believe autonomous vehicles should be operated much the same as an aircraft, where the pilot is always monitoring the situation. The weight, mass and momentum of a fully loaded transport rig has different consequences than a self-driven car should an incident occur. Human monitoring and possible intervention is required to manage the changeable, often extreme conditions that commonly occur during road transportation. In other words, experienced truckers will still be a required necessity to oversee truck operations well into the foreseeable future. Even when trucks are, someday, allowed to drive with no human aboard on rural interstate stretches, it’s likely that drivers will need to take over the wheel at designated connection points on the way into urban areas.
What does this mean for transportation company owners?
In many ways trucking is at the forefront of the 4th Industrial Revolution, and will lead the way. Most analysts believe that self-driving freight trucks will be the first fully-automated vehicles in regular use on roads and highways. Are you prepared to embrace how IoT and AI is transforming the trucking industry?
For company owners concerned about having to replace their aging equipment with fully automated driverless trucks, your concerns are valid but premature. The technology is being developed and tested, but there are many barriers to large scale industry deployment. The path forward for truck company owners is to be informed and prepared. Have a financial plan that allows easy access to working capital providing the ability to make equipment acquisitions when the time is right. Working with an invoice factoring company for trucking is a solid financial strategy for creating positive cash flow. Freight factoring has become a mainstream funding option allowing trucking companies to convert their accounts receivable invoices into instant cash. This highly flexible cash flow solution provides the ability to pay bills on time, pay drivers and support equipment acquisitions when needed. Using all the services available from a freight factoring company will strengthen trucking company’s operational base. These services include:
- Fuel Advance: Pay for over-the-road expenses
- Fuel Cards: Huge savings on your largest operating expense
- Credit Checks: Ensure each new customer is credit worthy
What all of these factors make clear is that the industry is not going to see large scale use of driverless trucks nor heavy losses of truck driving jobs anytime soon. However, it is inevitable that self-driving trucks are coming – truck company owners need to be informed and financially prepared to act when the time is right.
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