Over the years, truck driving in the United States has grown into one of the most frequent professions. Technology led to the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. Globalization and automation have challenged and redefined many other industries along the way. But, driving a truck has largely been immune to those realities. Until now.
At the end of October, the first-ever automated tractor trailer successfully transported a commercial shipment of beer 120 miles across Colorado state from a distribution center in Loveland to Colorado Springs. This comes on the heels of the first ever self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh earlier this year.
By illustrating a commercially-viable model of the future, it is easy to see how automated driving can be the answer to many transportation shortcomings. The installation of the automation kits sets the stage for huge gains. The beverage company in this trial projects up to 40 or 50 million dollars of annual savings in the United States alone.
The main motivators for the new technology include boosting highway safety and transportation efficiency. According to Department of Transportation data, nationally, trucks are statistically responsible for 9.5 percent of highway fatalities and 5.6 percent of all vehicle miles. By eliminating human error, tractor trailers could be programmed to drive at optimal speed at all hours of the day. A decrease in lane changes, accelerations, decelerations, insurance costs and delivery times could reinvent a large portion of the trucking industry.
At first glance, many truckers may interpret this as a threat to their livelihoods. However, the creators of this technology see things a bit differently. With the rise of the automation technology, the human role in truck driving will transform into that of a co-pilot. City driving will still require more complex human judgment. Humans will also need to be present in the rare emergency instances where an override can expedite improvisational decision-making. Human co-pilots could rest while the truck drives, which would overcome the 11-hour legal restriction on manual driving due to concerns of safety and fatigue.
The software and hardware for automated driving is still in the early stages. Many iterations and improvements will happen before any of it reaches mainstream use. This foundation does preview a proof-of-concept that we can expect to see in the years ahead.