The autonomous 18-wheeler is here. Well, sort of.
In May, Freightliner and Daimler unveiled the Inspiration truck, a prototype Level 3 autonomous vehicle, to much fanfare. The implication, clearly, is that the next generation of technology is here and about to hit the roads. The future, in which trucks can drive themselves, has arrived.
Of course, the truth is not that simple. First of all, the Inspiration truck is not a driverless truck, nor does anyone have any plans to build a true driverless truck in the foreseeable future. For now, the objective is not to remove the driver but to make driving a bit easier by transferring some (not all) of the work to a computer and a sensor system under very specific conditions. This opens opportunities for drivers to organize their day-to-day business including scheduling pickups and drop-offs, making reservations for lodging, completing inspection reports, and reducing distractions to keep the driver and the general public safe on the road.
The closest thing to a driverless truck that anyone even anticipates is what’s called a Level 4 autonomous vehicle. Such a truck would need its driver only to select a route and to be on hand to take over in case of emergencies. A Level 3, such as the system on board the Inspiration, is essentially equivalent to the automatic pilot on an airplane. It can keep the truck in its lane at a safe following distance behind other vehicles and it can slow or stop if traffic conditions require it.
In principle, the driver could set the truck on autonomous mode in order to make a phone call or eat while still behind the wheel. But since the autonomous system cannot respond creatively to developing problems (it cannot, for example, notice debris or objects that may fall off a vehicle up ahead) and is not aware of anything outside its lane, the driver will absolutely have to stay behind the wheel and remain fully attentive for the entire trip.
For now, Freightliner’s autonomous system is even more limited than that, for both technical and legal reasons.
Not only are autonomous trucks only allowed, even for testing purposes, in a small minority of states, but even when states do start permitting these systems for commercial use there is no guarantee that they will all do so together. The three states at the forefront of regulating self-driving trucks—Nevada, California, and Michigan—allow the use of these trucks at once, that will do trucking companies no good at all. And no matter what the legal situation is, the Inspiration Truck has not been tested in anything other than clear, daylight conditions. The system is not yet ready to be deployed.
At some point in the foreseeable future, autonomous trucks may be able to correct for all-to-human errors, such as moments of inattention or drowsiness. They will not leave human drivers out of a job, not for a generation, if ever. What these systems might do is make driving less exhausting and less dangerous for drivers.