Driverless Trucks are not “Driverless”. Learn the 5 levels of autonomous.


driverless, Freightliner; Daimler Trucks; Daimler; Daimler Trucks North America; DTNA; autonomous driving; autonomous; autonomous vehicle; licensed; street legal; autonomes Fahren; autonom; zugelassen; Nevada; Las Vegas; USA; Inspiration Truck; Inspiration
driverless,Freightliner; Daimler Trucks; Daimler; Daimler Trucks North America; DTNA; autonomous driving; autonomous; autonomous vehicle; licensed; street legal; autonomes Fahren; autonom; zugelassen; Nevada; Las Vegas; USA; Inspiration Truck; Inspiration Image Credit: Freightliner Media

With the splashy debut last spring of the Freightliner Inspiration truck, the era of autonomous, self-driving trucks is here, for better or worse. Yet what will the rise of driverless trucks mean for trucking jobs. Will there be complete elimination of the sector or will job functions shift, as they already have in some industries?

How driverless trucks work

Let’s look at what autonomous trucks are and how they operate, along with the ramifications of this technology on the driving industry.

In the Freightliner, like other autonomous vehicles, a large number of sensors, camera and radar are plugged in to vehicle controls. Autonomy adopts technology we have all seen being used — cruise control, lane-keeping, parking sensors, and back-up cameras — and uses them in a new way. Wiring connects this technology to vehicle systems including brakes, transmission, throttle and steering wheel. These interrelated systems allow for driverless and driver-supported operation.

The net effect? The human is taken out of the equation … to some degree.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has categorized autonomous vehicles into five levels. At Level 0 a driver maintains control at all times. Level 1 allows for some automated controls, such as braking and stability control. With Level 2, there are two automated systems working together, such as cruise control that works in tandem with lane-keeping technology. At Level 3, a driver can relinquish control of certain functions that are critical to safety. The vehicle will sense when the driver needs to retake control and allows time for the driver to do so. At Level 4, all safety-critical functions are automated for the whole trip. In this highest level, the driver is never expected to control the vehicle, with automated features from start to stop being controlled automatically.

Advantages and disadvantages

There are a number of key advantages that these driverless haul trucks and driverless dump trucks have over operator-driven trucks.

Perhaps the most obvious is the improvements that can be made to safety. Traffic accidents with big rigs can be devastating in terms of loss of life, injury and property damage. Most truck accidents are the result of human error, whether fatigue, unsafe driving practice, tailgating, aggressive driving or distracted driving. Eliminating the human element likely will save lives.

There are a number of other advantages, including reduced traffic congestion, potentially higher speed limits, lower insurance rates, and smoother rides,

However, there are a number of disadvantages too, including many that are solved by having a human involved in the operation in some capacity. These disadvantages include:

  • Equipment reliability and hackability. The notion of a nefarious individual compromising software or other technical equipment is real. There are very real risks from GPS jammers, sensor disruptors, and software failures. Imagine a driverless truck packed with explosives and controlled remotely.
  • Legal and regulatory issues. There will be extensive issues related to regulation, insurance liability, and basic traffic laws and regulations that will need to be addressed before autonomous trucks become a real fixture on our roads and highways.
  • Severe weather.  The ability of these vehicles to drive in poor weather such as high winds, snowstorms or severe rainstorms has not been reliably tested.
  • Human Interaction. Can driverless trucks understand gestures made by pedestrians, other drivers, police or other emergency personnel?
  • Economic impact. The loss of jobs from driverless haul trucks would extend beyond drivers themselves. Truck drivers need to sleep, eat, and rest while on the road. There are whole business models developed to meet these needs, from inexpensive motels to full-service truck stops. For local economies that rely on the tax revenue generated by these businesses and the restaurant, hospitality, and convenience store employees who work there, the losses will be significant.

Impact on driving jobs

What all this means for the 3.5 million trucking jobs in the United States today is not fully known. Even Freightliner has indicated it does not plan to build Level 4 trucks. The automated trucks today have been largely at the Level 3 threshold.

While this shift will likely mean some changes to employment, it is unlikely to occur anytime soon. A 2015 study by Frost & Sullivan estimates that by 2035 there will be 182,000 Level 3 semi-autonomous trucks sold worldwide, representing only about 11 percent of the 1.6 million total trucks market. Further, Wilfried Achenbach, Daimler Trucks North America senior vice president of engineering and technology, said that the software isn’t there yet to replicate what the human brain can observe and process.

Instead of eliminating jobs, the semi-autonomous trucks may be able to improve safety and quality of life for truck drivers. A paired system — driver and tech — would reduce issues such as driver fatigue and stress that are significant issues in the industry. Tests by Freightliner have showed that driver sleepiness drops by up to 25 percent with autonomous vehicles.

For now, the driving industry faces a significant driver shortage. This scarcity usually drives up salaries, but the impact of automated trucking throws a major x factor into the equation. With the technology not quite there, it’s likely there will be a shift in responsibilities for truckers. With an increased need for technologically savvy drivers, might trucking jobs become more attractive, especially to generations that have been raised in our increasingly digital world?

In the mining industry, automated trucks have led to safer conditions in the loading and unloading of material. Jobs in that sector have shifted from the manual operation of equipment to the monitoring of control systems at a safe, remote distance. Might jobs on trucking follow a similar path? With more time available trucks could, perhaps, handle more back-office tasks when not needed to steer?

Shifting public sentiment

For the industry to move more fully into driverless trucking, there is still one very significant barrier: public sentiment. Autopilot controls in airplanes can do much of the flying of a plane. But when you need a pilot, you need a pilot. Before the public is fully comfortable with completely automated trucks, there will need to be significant changes in public opinion and comfort in with relinquishing control to machines.

Inevitably, there will be technological improvements and cost reductions in automation technology, resolution of legislative issues, and an increase in public acceptance, these advancements will not be leading to a radical transformation of the industry any time soon. Automation will certainly bring change to the numbers of jobs in trucking, but the future story is still to be written.

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