The Rise of Driverless Trucks

Driverless vehicles ranging from cars to tractors are in the news every day. Technology and transportation giants around the world are investing significant amounts of capital in order to secure a strong position in the driverless future. There is no doubt that the commercial availability and adoption of driverless vehicle technology will disrupt many industries. One of the industries that has already started the commercial implementation of driverless technology is the trucking industry, the backbone of every supply chain. Many experts believe that the primary forces behind the rise of driverless trucks include the megatrends of ensuring safety, reducing costs, addressing a shortage of drivers, improving operational efficiency, reducing environmental impact, and remaining connected.

Today, a large number of truck accidents are caused by human errors. Meanwhile, the cost of employing a skilled truck driver is high and rising; in fact, the industry is facing a shortage of skilled truck drivers. The supply chain efficiency for long-haul trucking needs to be improved considerably to keep pace with the emergence of e-commerce and increasingly stiff competition. Constructing new roads and infrastructure to reduce traffic congestion is extremely challenging in many parts of the developed world, given the impact on public funds and the environment. Reducing pollution and carbon emissions is another major challenge for the truck industry. And on top of all of these factors, everything has to remain connected at every moment and anywhere in the digital world. Some of these recent developments have provided encouragement not only to driverless truck manufacturers but also to businesses where logistics are mostly handled by trucks.

Driverless truck technology is already being successfully implemented in the mining industry. Driving trucks in the often harsh conditions at mining sites, including extreme heat and cold, can be difficult for human workers. Instead, it is a lot easier to manage autonomous trucks from faraway control centers. In Pilbara, Western Australia, at the iron ore mines of Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, a fleet of 69 autonomous trucks is outperforming the manually driven trucks that were previously used. Interestingly, Rio Tinto owns and operates the world’s largest collection of autonomous haulage system trucks, which are manufactured by Komatsu. The autonomous haulage system trucks are part of a program called Mine of the Future, which was launched by Rio Tinto back in 2008. According to Rio Tinto, the 7 meter high driverless trucks carry tons of high-grade ore and completely eliminate the workforce-related issues of frequent break time, absenteeism, and shift changes, which results in increased onsite efficiency, cost reductions, and improved safety. The other iron mining heavyweights like BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group have also been testing driverless trucks.

In September 2014, Daimler AG unveiled the Future Truck 2025 prototype, a concept big rig, at the International Commercial Vehicles show in Hannover, Germany. The prototype is being tested on roads and is packed with features including a compelling design for the exterior and interior, radar and camera systems, blind spot assistance, and network connectivity. With a primary goal of ensuring maximum safety on highways, Daimler equipped the Future Truck 2025 with an automated system known as Highway Pilot. According to Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, the Daimler board member for trucks and buses, “It never gets tired. It’s always 100 percent and sharp. It’s never angry; it’s never distracted, so this is a much safer system.”

The same Highway Pilot technology is being utilized in Daimler-owned Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck, which was unveiled earlier this year in Las Vegas. The Inspiration Truck is the first commercial truck to be officially granted Nevada’s Autonomous Vehicle license plate. The Inspiration Truck is considered Level 3 (Limited Self-Driving Automation) on NHTSA’s automation scale. Level 3 is the second-highest level of automation on the scale, and is the same designation given to Google’s self-driving cars.

Around the world, there is a significant increase in the number of trucks running on highways. But there are fewer and fewer professional drivers available. The job of truck driving is stressful, risky, exhausting, and monotonous, with very limited professional growth opportunity. Moreover, because of human errors, highway driving can be quite dangerous. According to data available at NHTSA, in 2012 there were 3,921 people killed and 104,000 people injured in crashes involving 333,000 large trucks in the United States alone. Even though there are companies such as Komatsu, Daimler AG, Peloton Technology, and Volvo Group that have a strong focus on driverless trucks, it will likely take years for driverless trucks to get going at full commercial scale. But a few things seem certain, given the current trajectory of the industry: driverless trucks will provide improved highway safety, they will lead to a gradual shift from human drivers to system-wide transport management, and as a result the highways of the future will look quite different from those of today.

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