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Are Autonomous Trucks Here Already?

2015_Transportfolio_Blog_DriverLess

Reading about autonomous trucks in the news lately leaves me wondering what, exactly, “autonomous” means. Is the term interchangeable with “driverless,” as it is so often used in conversations about self-driving trucks and Google’s self-driving cars? According to Merriam-Webster.com, autonomous means “existing or capable of existing independently; responding, reacting, or developing independently of the whole.”

These definitions tell the story, don’t they? Autonomous vehicles are capable of responding and acting independent of driver intervention.

For some time, I was convinced that the technology needed to make autonomous trucks a reality was available, but that implementation was stifled due to feelings of unease and uncertainty amongst society and legislators. It also seemed to me that autonomous cars would need to be a more common sight on roads before operating authority was given to the trucking industry.

But maybe I was being too skeptical. The first autonomous commercial truck licensed to operate on public highways in the United States, granted by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, was recently unveiled at the Hoover Dam. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck traveled across the top of the dam, operating in autonomous mode.

While this autonomous commercial truck is a test vehicle, the licensure illustrates that pertinent parties are ready to analyze the technology on the open road. It also seems most likely that autonomous trucks will be self-driving with drivers present, rather than driverless, self-driving trucks.

Industry analyst Adrian Gonzalez, founder and president of Adelante SCM and founder and host of Talking Logistics agrees, “When most people think of driverless or autonomous trucks, they think of a truck driver sitting back and reading a newspaper while the truck does all the work getting from point A to B. But there are five levels of automation as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),” he said.

“While we might be a few, or perhaps many, years away from the highest level of automation—‘Full Self-Driving Automation,’ where the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip—the reality is that a significant level of automation, such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering technology, already exists in both passenger cars and commercial trucks, especially at the high end of the market. In short, autonomous vehicles are already here, and you might be driving one already without fully appreciating it,” he continued.

What do you think about autonomous trucks on the road? Please share your thoughts about safety opportunities and concerns, environmental benefits, driver benefits, risk and liability issues, and any other considerations.