Self-Driving Trucks Hit the Road

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Robots Working the Roads

We all know about Google’s experiments with self-driving cars. Most recently, they showed off this car that doesn’t even have a steering wheel! But… giant self-driving trucks and construction vehicles are in the background… quietly becoming reality with some big implications for all of us.

Unmanned Trucks for the Military

Surprise, surprise, the military’s on the bleeding edge of adopting autonomous capabilities on the battlefield. Drones allow the US air force to patrol hostile skies without worrying about losing pilots. Well… imagine if self-driving convoys were in place to allow the US Army to maintain supply lines through hostile ground without worrying about losing a single soldier.

In January, Lockheed was successful with a self-driving convoy through a combat course at Fort Hood Texas. Interestingly enough, it’s a system that can be bolted onto pretty much any driveable piece of equipment the Army has! Which means, it could be driven remotely through dangerous areas in both rural and city settings. The self-driving army trucks showed they could safely share the road with live traffic and other obstacles. They’ve already logged 12,000 miles of road tests… so it could be battlefield-ready pretty soon!

Caterpillar’s MineStar System

On the civilian side, Caterpillar is putting 45 self-driving 250-ton trucks and other autonomous mining equipment to work in Australia. Operators can monitor and control work in dangerous areas without putting humans at risk. Caterpillar says that its MineStar and Command systems are boosting productivity at the iron-ore mine by 25%.

Komatsu is Automating Mines, Too

Komatsu is also supplying self-driving equipment to the Austrialian mining industry with similar results. Surely, other manufacturers will follow suit. This technology also reduces the need to hire as many highly skilled (and highly paid) equipment operators so there are some social implications to consider.

Automated Transportation Trucking

On the open road, the American, European and Japanese trucking industries are also working toward a future that could include self-driving big rigs.

Japan has been testing this technology since 2007! And they’ve successfully programmed a convoy of trucks to automatically maintain four meter spacing (14 feet for us silly Americans). This cuts down on air resistance and reduces the drag similar to “drafting” with a race car.

In Europe, Volvo has demonstrated a similar approach they call Platooning. In this scenario, there’s a lead truck with a human driver, but then autonomous trucks and cars are programmed to follow the lead. This was done on public roads in Spain, they covered 200 kilometers (124 miles) in one day, driving at a speed of 90 kilometers an hour (which is about 55 miles an hour). They were spaced only 5 meters (16 feet) apart. These tests suggest using the platooning method could see fuel savings of up to 15 percent.

In the US, Peloton Tech is doing similar tests on desert highways in Utah and Nevada. The trucks travelled at 105 kilometers (65 miles) per hour with a separation of 11 meters (or 36 feet) between them. They had fuel savings of ten percent on this one.

Of course, the technology is way ahead of the legislation needed to make self-driving trucks (and cars) a reality on public roads, but we expect that to change within the next ten years.

Pros and Cons of Automated Trucks

So… what are the pros and cons of all self driving awesomeness? First, there’s safety. You’ve got highways with self driving vehicles that have amazing track records for safety… sharing the road with cars and trucks operated by human drivers, whose track record… well, not so amazing. The combination of the two could prove dangerous. Can you imagine… humans still aren’t even near used to the idea of seeing no one behind the wheel. You’re driving down the road, see a self driving vehicle (a TRUCK no less)… and the first thing you do is take your concentration off the road to marvel at the success and share the story with passengers or worse, start taking pictures of it and posting it on Twitter. All while trying to drive without crashing.

So the US trucking industry is thinking about putting autonomous short-haul trucks on the highways overnight when traffic (and the likelihood of interaction with human driven vehicles) is lessened.

Once self-driving trucks enter the long-haul market – which currently requires teams of human drivers and required rest periods- there’s no way to avoid human drivers during peak daylight hours, so we might see that change a while later.

And – just like the potential for job losses in the mining industry, the trucking industry isn’t immune. In the US alone, 5.7 million people are licensed as professional truck drivers, at full-time salaries and benefits totaling $65,000 to $100,000 per position. What will happen to them?

I would expect many of those jobs to change rather than disappear altogether. You still have to have operators monitoring the trips. Safety concerns could require trucks to be staffed by humans during the day to deal with human drivers or to safely pilot them through urban areas, “releasing” them at city limits. And, since there’s a shortage of drivers right now, and there’s high turnover with long-haul drivers (because it’s a tough job!), some people are saying this could be a win for both the trucking industry and its drivers.

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