How driverless trucks will change the economy

Look, no hands... a driver relaxes as his Freightliner Inspiration Truck powers along a Nevada highway

Self-driving vehicles are on the horizon – but cars might need to give way to driverless trucks on this occasion.

More people are starting to become aware of autonomous cars, but the same technologies are expected to transform the trucking industry in coming decades. Since freight trucks mostly travel predictable long-distance routes, complete autonomy – no driver at all – may become commonplace in 18-wheelers well before it comes to the cars in your garage.

One of the first innovations we are likely to notice is “platooning” systems from firms such as US-based Peloton Technology and several European vehicle firms.

These systems allow trucks to stay closer to each other on long journeys, with the lead truck surveying the road ahead and controlling the throttle and brakes of the other vehicles. As distances between trucks reduce, fuel consumption – about 40 per cent of the cost of some trucking operations – drops by as much as 10 per cent. 

“Autonomous trucks would change societies in many ways.”

The US already has a standard for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and the technology may spread quickly over the next few years. The Netherlands successfully tested platooning in April.

Inspiration leads the way

Such trucks are already heading for the road. The 18-wheeler Freightliner Inspiration Truck is produced by Daimler AG, which also owns autonomous car leader Mercedes-Benz. The Inspiration Truck operates almost completely without a driver, staying in the right lane and maintaining safe distances.

It retains the same problem as its car cousins: it reads safety lines and unusual conditions imperfectly, so it must often hand off control to humans, even on highways. And people must still handle travel on local roads. However, the system is reliable enough to be already licensed for the road in the US state of Nevada.

A 2015 report from consultancy Roland Berger (PDF) suggested that “limited self-driving trucks are not expected to reach series-production readiness before 2025”.

The Conference Board of Canada said last year that it anticipated human drivers would make a gradual transition from full-time driving to first an “operator/driver” role with some automated driving, then to a “chaperone” phase where one driver oversees a single largely automated truck, before a single chaperone becomes responsible for multiple trucks in a platoon.

“After this,” it said, “we anticipate that trucks will be driving unmanned.”

Impact on society

Autonomous vehicles Autonomous trucks would change societies in many ways. Fuel and labour costs for freight operators would both eventually fall, and pricey trucks could be run 24 hours a day. That would cut overall costs throughout economies.

In Australia, for instance, IBISWorld estimates road freight transport industry revenue at A$40 billion per year.

Autonomous trucking could also reduce road congestion by allowing trucks to fit into smaller segments of road. It could be expected to cut road deaths for truckers and everyone else; road freight transport is Australia’s most dangerous industry, according to Work Safe Australia.

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An even bigger effect may be the loss of large numbers of semi-skilled jobs, particularly for males. “Truck driver” is the most common job in 35 of the 50 US states and Australia’s second most common male occupation, behind only sales assistant. 

Many countries, including Australia, currently have a truck driver shortage. That could soon change.

On the buses

Some experts tip buses and trams will become autonomous even before trucks. Their routes are defined and limited, so the software for autonomous buses will have to deal with a smaller set of conditions and need less of the complex 3D maps and recognition processes that underpin true autonomy.

Self-driving buses are likely to appear first in China and Singapore. The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre is looking not just at buses but at how autonomous vehicles (see left) can enable the shorter trips between homes and public transport stops.

Read next: 5 ways your commute will improve by 2020


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