If you saw the recent X-Men movie "Logan," you probably remember one startling scene that showed driverless robotic trucks hurtling down the highway in the year 2029.
That futuristic vision isn't here yet, and experts say there are significant technological and regulatory challenges that would have to be overcome before autonomous trucks dominate our highways. But already, truck manufacturers have been making significant strides toward automating much of the work human truck drivers currently perform — and those advances eventually may lead to future fleets of big rigs that transport their loads safely without a person behind the wheel.
New Tech on the Road
Vehicle manufacturer Daimler tested an experimental big rig in Nevada in 2015, but the company isn't going to put such autonomous vehicles (AVs) into production any time soon.
"An AV requires significant system redundancies in the event of a component failure, a significant increase in sensing to provide an accurate 360-degree view of the environment — particularly challenging with a trailer — and a significant increase in computational power and artificial intelligence," says Derek Rotz, director of advanced engineering for Daimler Trucks North America, via email. "In short, we see significant development hurdles to be autonomous, which adds cost and complexity to the vehicle."
In a 2016 corporate blog post on the future of autonomous trucks, Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer for the commercial trucking giant Ryder, wrote that "increased road safety regulations have played a large role in driving advancements in onboard vehicle technologies."
In an interview, he says that the industry already is outfitting human-driven trucks with technology such as adaptive cruise control, forward-looking radar, and collision-avoidance and lane-departure warning systems, in an effort to make trucks safer.
Minding the Gap
Another promising automation advance that could help human truck drivers is platooning technology, which enables trucks to communicate with each other and follow one another at distances close enough to reduce air drag and boost fuel efficiency.
"Collapsing the following distance from 150 to 50 feet (46 meters to 15 meters) would improve the fuel economy of the lead vehicle by 4 percent, and the trailing vehicle by 10 percent," Perry says. If a car got between them, the trucks' platooning technology automatically would adapt and lengthen their following distance, he says.
Daimler recently began testing platooning on selected highways in Oregon and Nevada. The company's director of advanced engineering emphasizes that Daimler intends the technology to augment a human at the wheel, rather than replace him or her. "Daimler Trucks North America believes the driver will remain indispensable to the vehicle, as their responsibilities go beyond steering, accelerating and braking," says Rotz. "Therefore the platooning system is developed specifically with the driver in mind."
But without totally replacing drivers, automating many of their tasks could make their work easier, and help them to work longer and more safely. That could help the trucking industry cope with a growing shortage of drivers that's projected to reach 175,000 nationwide by 2024, according to trade publication Logistics Management, up from 2017's shortage of 48,000 drivers.
Those technologies also could pave the way eventually for trucks that are fully autonomous. Besides easing driver shortages, autonomy also could help reduce highway congestion. Perry envisions driverless trucks that would communicate with each other and slow their speed in unison as they approached a major city, allowing traffic to continue to flow smoothly. Or the driverless fleets could travel late at night, he says, when there aren't as many commuters in cars on the road.
Powered by Batteries
By making truck travel more efficient, autonomous technology might also extend the range of future generations of battery-powered electric trucks that would help reduce carbon emissions.
In Sweden, startup truck maker Einride has developed a prototype electric driverless big rig called the T-pod, a 23-foot-long (7-meters-long) rig that weighs in at 20 tons (18.1 metric tons) fully loaded, and is envisioned as a cleaner alternative to conventional diesel-burning big rigs. What's particularly attention-getting about the T-pod is that it not only lacks a steering wheel and pedals and a windshield, but doesn't even have a cabin for a human to ride in.
"The T-pod will be autonomous," says Einride chief executive Robert Falck, in an email, "but will have a remote driver that is able to take over in certain situations where the system needs assistance — such as construction, getting on and off highways, or any other unpredictable situations.
Einride is perfoming a pilot program for an unnamed customer in late 2017, and has set a goal of having a network for 200 T-pods up and running by 2020, Falck says.