Would You Share the Road with an Unmanned 40-Ton Truck?

Move over cars—driverless trucks may soon bring sweeping transportation and economic changes

cars and trucks on highway

At the beginning of April, six convoys of “smart” trucks traveled from six countries in Europe and met in The Netherlands, reports The Guardian. Each convoy consisted of two or three trucks playing follow-the-leader: though the first was driven, the rest were driverless trucks—semi-automated trucks with no driver behind the wheel (though one was on board, just in case).

The trucks, reports The Guardian, were wirelessly connected and the front, human-driven one set the route and speed. Six different big-name automobile manufacturers built the trucks—including Mercedes and Volvo—and though the convoys weren’t completely driverless, the stunt has set off debate about the future of trucking; with all of the benefits and drawbacks autonomous vehicles offer.

driverless trucks testing road
Semi-automated trucks are driven on the E19 highway in Vilvoorde on Tuesday as part of the ‘EU truck platooning challenge’. (Photograph: Eric Lalmand/AFP/Getty Images)
The trucks driving through Belgium (Photo: AFP)

Big names in both the tech and auto industries (Tesla, Apple, General Motors, Toyota) have been gaining solid ground in the race to bring driverless cars to the market, and while autonomous vehicles are likely to bring big changes to the way everyday people drive and buy cars, as well as big changes to infrastructure, driverless trucks could have an incredible impact on our economy and the environment.

Driverless Trucks: What They Have, What They Don’t

April’s European convoy was the first of its kind; no other such undertaking has been completed across borders from such distances. And while experts believe truck platooning—and even autonomous trucks—will reduce road deaths caused by driver error and will create more efficient trucking, there’s still quite a long way to go before driverless truck convoys are a way of life.

Trucks platooning can, proponents hope, reduce traffic by driving closely together at a consistent speed, writes Time. Driving at a constant speed of 45 miles per hour is the most fuel-efficient means of transportation, writes TechCrunch, and convoys of driverless trucks seem best positioned to achieve optimal fuel efficiency. Driving more closely one behind the other will also reduce air resistance, leading to a significant fuel savings.

But experts say several hurdles must be overcome before driverless trucking becomes a reality: government regulations must catch up, so too must insurance policies. (Who would compensate whom in the event of a crash between a driverless truck and a passenger vehicle?)

All this notwithstanding, TechCrunch argues that the barriers to driverless trucking are primarily regulatory: how to get driverless trucks on and off highways (as they aren’t technologically equipped for street-level autonomous driving), and how to ensure dedicated lanes (if driverless trucks take advantage of the fuel efficiency that comes with slower speeds, they’ll need separate space so as not to get in the way of human drivers).

driverless trucks test route through Europe
Driverless truck test route (Image: EU Truck Platooning)

Will Driverless Trucks Eliminate Jobs?

Though autonomous trucks seem positioned to offer better fuel efficiency, increased productivity, and safer roads for everyone, there’s one big caveat: jobs. In more than half of U.S. states, truck driving is the most popular profession. We are years away from the technology and infrastructure to support fully driverless vehicles, never mind driverless trucks, and humans will still need to be involved as semi-autonomous trucks become fully autonomous, but evidence suggests we’re talking about a “when,” not an “if.”

Truck drivers represent a full one percent of the U.S. workforce, not including industries that support the trucking industry and drivers, like gas stations, rest stops, and highway diners, all of which could be adversely affected by driverless trucking. These potential job losses might cause lawmakers to drag their feet when it comes to passing legislation that would make semi-autonomous truck convoys—and, eventually, fully autonomous trucking—legal.

three semi-trucks

Driverless Trucks and the Economy

But the potential economic savings of driverless trucking might be difficult for lawmakers to pass up. For instance: 75 percent of the cost of shipping via trucks is labor. Further, human drivers are required by law to take an eight-hour break for every 11 hours of driving, a restriction driverless trucks would obviously not have. “That means the technology would effectively double the output of the U.S. transportation network at 25 percent of the cost,” writes TechCrunch.

Potential Resistance to Driverless Trucking

One of the big unknowns with driverless passenger vehicles is their potential to cause crashes or other damage on the road, especially when the technology is first introduced (think, all the bugs of a new computer program, but with two-ton consequences). The fears of autonomous cars is real, and when it comes to 40-ton autonomous trucks, the fear becomes that much greater. Companies and lawmakers clearing the path for driverless trucks will have to keep the safety of other drivers paramount.