Freight Transportation Sees First Road Test Sans Driver
This past December, TuSimple, a global autonomous driving technology company headquartered in San Diego, California, reached a new milestone for the freight transportation industry. They completed the first successful run by a Class 8 vehicle on open roads with no human on board and no human intervention during the trip. The 80-mile route started in Tucson, AZ, and ended in Phoenix, with approval and surveillance by the Arizona Department of Transportation and law enforcement. One lead vehicle drove five miles ahead of the autonomous semi-truck to scout for unexpected obstacles. Another vehicle trailed a mile and a half behind the truck, ready to intervene if necessary. There were also several unmarked police cars along the route ready to intervene. However, TuSimple reported that the autonomous semi-successfully executed highway lane changes, on and off-ramps, and traffic signals, while interacting naturally with other drivers on the road. This could mean a whole new world for freight transportation, but the testing and legislation surrounding them still needs work.
Laws Surrounding Autonomous Vehicles
Since autonomous driving technology has become more common in recent years, states and municipalities are starting to introduce legislation around the use and operation of autonomous vehicles. So far, 37 states, and the District of Columbia, have passed laws or issued executive orders concerning autonomous vehicles. Five states are in earlier testing phases, which entails authorizing financing and defining key terms and state contacts. Twelve states have authorized testing, and 16 states, along with the District of Columbia, have authorized full deployment. In terms of freight transportation, four states have authorized truck platooning, but that process still involves a human onboard one of the trucks. Laws surrounding autonomous vehicles are still in their early stages, but the technology is becoming more advanced and more commonly seen.
Benefits and Disadvantages to Autonomous Vehicles
Autonomous driving technology is designed to execute driving tasks very well, but the technology is still relatively early in development. Automated vehicles are programmed to track traffic patterns and react accordingly, preventing accidents and improving traffic flow on the road. Having a car that can park itself in a spot or position itself consistently at a designated bay garage door is also a huge convenience, especially in freight transportation. TuSimple also estimated that it saved 10% on fuel-related costs during their recent test run, compared to human-operated trucks.
Since this technology is still new and exclusive, one of the disadvantages to autonomous vehicles is the high price to make and buy them. The amount of research, development and tested materials inevitably mean that early forms of new technology will be more expensive to own and operate. Also, since autonomous vehicles are operated by computer software, many worry about the possibility of malfunction or hacking. Safety has been the number one concern in designing this technology, but a mistake in programming code or access gained by the wrong person could have serious consequences. There is also the concern that autonomous vehicles will take away jobs from those who make a living by driving a rig.
What Does This Mean For Current Truckers?
Autonomous vehicles are an appealing option for freight transportation companies since an estimated 40% of trucking operational costs go toward the human driver. Alternatively, this may be daunting news for truck drivers who make their living in freight transportation. As this technology becomes more widely available, it is possible that trucking companies will start to deploy fully automated trucks on more deliveries and may rely less on human drivers. However, much progress still needs to be made in legislation and testing before this change is seen. Currently, automated truck platoons still require a human driver on board, and the USDOT has stated that they hope to create access to good-paying jobs while investing in a more advanced transportation system.