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If you see a truck driver asleep at the wheel in Nevada, don’t panic: it might just be an autonomous vehicle.
The Freightliner Inspiration – Nevada license plate AU 010 – is the first self-driving transport truck to hit the roads anywhere. With permission from the state of Nevada to operate on limited access highways, this truck is a significant landmark toward the future of transportation.
Daimler, a German automaker which owns the Mercedes brand, is responsible for the development of the truck. They claim it will make drivers lives easier, reduce accidents and save on fuel. But how does it work, and what does it mean for truck drivers?
A Truck That Drives Itself
Imagine a future where a truck “driver” needs only to get into the cab and get things started. From then on the driver can lean back – the truck will keep itself on the road and from hitting other cars.
Now stop imagining, because this isn’t the future: that truck exists, right now, and it’s legal in Nevada.
We looked at how self driving cars work in the past; the Freightliner Inspiration is similar. It uses radar to detect when there are cars in front of it, and a camera to see where the lane markings are. There’s no camera on the back. This is less sophisticated than Google’s Lidar solution, making the truck only partially self-driving. However, even limited highwar driving is a huge deal for trucks, whose drivers routinely deal with fatigue, long hours, and road hypnosis.
Currently there’s only one Freightliner Inspiration on the road, and it’s not entirely self-driving. The limitations:
- The truck is only autonomous on limited access highways.
- It won’t pass slow vehicles on its own – the human driver needs to do that.
- If for some reason the truck cannot see the lines on the road, it will alert the driver with a beep. If the driver doesn’t take over, the truck will slow down and eventually stop.
- There’s currently no vehicle to vehicle communication.
- Legally, the vehicle cannot operating outside Nevada.
Of course, this is just an early version of the truck: future versions will include more features like platooning, and more advanced self-driving.
The platooning feature could allow for self-driving convoys that use less fuel.
Huge Potential For Safety
— James Menzies (@JamesMenzies) May 5, 2015
If you’re not a fan of dying, a self-driving truck is pretty good news. 4,000 people in the US die in accidents involving transport trucks annually – a number that widespread autonomous trucks will help reduce.
Unlike human drivers, autonomous systems don’t get sleepy, tired or irritable – meaning they’re always operating at peak efficiency. This isn’t to say accidents will never happen – they inevitably will. But overall, the trend will be towards fewer accidents, meaning insurance companies will have plenty of motivation to encourage fleets to use autonomous trucks.
One truck in one state won’t accomplish all of this instantly – but it’s a step in the right direction.
A Long Term Threat to Truck Drivers?
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a truck driver, only to discover a closely guarded secret: the trucks actually drive themselves. Truck drivers don’t want this discovered, for fear of losing their cushy jobs.
It brings to mind a question: will this technology end up taking jobs from truck drivers? Daimler claims no.
“We don’t want to get rid of drivers,” says Sven Ennerst of Daimler Trucks. “We want to make their lives more efficient and more easy.”
In the short term, this checks out: current regulations require there be a driver in the truck, regardless of whether its self-driving. But how long will that be true? The technology is improving quickly. Will thousands of truck drivers end up losing their jobs? Even if regulations continue to require a human operator in case of emergencies, can those operators reasonably expect to make the same salary as before?
These are tough questions to face – the sorts of questions surrounding every world changing, disruptive technology.
In this case, though, there’s one important counterpoint. Right now, there’s a huge shortage of truck drivers in the United States. Online shopping means there’s more need for truck drivers than ever before, but fewer people are willing to put in the long hours required. Self driving trucks could absorb the jobs that nobody wants to do.
This Isn’t Science Fiction
There is a self-driving truck on the road in Nevada, right now. Automation is poised to be one of the most powerful force of the 21st century, improving efficiency and safety while also replacing jobs.
When you see headlines like a self-driving truck, it’s important to think about the long term. There are going to be tremendous gains, yes, but there’s also going to be a potentially harsh transition for people whose jobs are potentially being replaces. We all need to figure out together how we can get handle the enormous transition.
With that in mind, let’s chat in the comments. We can talk about the truck or the broader implications – I’m up for whatever. I’m looking forward to talking with all of you.