Daimler Trucks has announced it will invest EUR 500 million (around 570 million USD) in the coming years as it pushes to bring highly automated trucks (SAE level 4) to the road within a decade. Its new Freightliner Cascadia offers partially automated driving features (SAE level 2), making it the first-ever partially automated series production truck on North American roads.
So is it time to take autonomous trucks seriously?
Trucking: the backbone of the US economy
According to American Trucking Associations research, 70% of all goods shipped in the USA go by truck, generating $700 billion in revenue - almost 80% of the USA’s freight bill.
Trucking is a major employer, the current driver shortage notwithstanding. The ATA reported in 2018 that roughly 7.7 million people were employed in jobs related to trucking activity, including 3.5 million drivers. Of those 3.5 million drivers, 1.7 million were heavy and tractor-trailer drivers.
Automation has the potential to eliminate many long-haul trucker jobs - but there’s little consensus about when that might happen.
So far, autonomous trucking trials in the USA have included a delivery of beer by the now-defunct Otto, with more extensive trials by companies including the start-up Embark. In 2018, Embark raised another $30m in funding, bringing it to a total of $47m invested since its founding in 2016.
Platooning – not so effective?
McKinsey predicts the first waves of autonomous trucks will feature platooning, delivering fuel efficiencies and reducing engine wear-and-tear. Platooning with drivers will still require a driver in each truck (SAE level 3 autonomy). But the next generation of platooning will be almost fully driverless, says McKinsey, with only the lead truck having a human in the cab.
Savings in fuel and labour will cut TCO by an additional 10%, according to McKinsey’s estimates.
Daimler Trucks, however, is reassessing its view on platooning, having tested it for several years. Results show that fuel savings, even in perfect platooning conditions, are less than expected and that those savings are further diminished when the platoon gets disconnected and the trucks must accelerate to reconnect. At least for US long-distance applications, analysis currently shows no business case for customers driving platoons with new, highly aerodynamic trucks.
Advocates for autonomous vehicles, including manufacturers such as Daimler, tout the safety of self-driving vehicles compared to humans. Robots never tire, and sensors don’t get distracted.
Safety protections limit the amount of time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel. If the driver were replaced by an automated system, the truck will be able to travel to its destination without mandated rest stops. It will only be constrained by its range or its ability to refuel.
Level 4 highly automated trucks also improve efficiency and productivity, among other things, through higher vehicle utilisation. Trucks can be used round the clock, avoiding peak periods and traffic jams.
But if there is an accident involving a self-driving truck, what happens? Liability laws will need to be changed in many jurisdictions to clarify what happens if a self-driving truck is at fault in an accident. Who, or what, gets sued?
“Highly automated trucks will improve safety, boost the performance of logistics and offer a great value proposition to our customers – and thus contribute considerably to a sustainable future of transportation.” - Martin Daum, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG with responsibility for Daimler Trucks & Buses
Cars aren’t the same as trucks when it comes to autonomy
Daimler notes that some developments from the Mercedes-Benz Cars division will be used at Daimler Trucks, but nonetheless the requirements for highly automated driving of cars and trucks differ considerably from one another.
The sheer size of a truck makes higher demands on the technology compared to passenger cars. There are other considerations such as the mass of the vehicle and implications for acceleration, braking, and cornering.
Operating conditions in the transport industry are also much tougher. Trucks clock up more miles on the road than passenger cars and must be highly reliable.
So can we take autonomous trucks seriously yet?
Early retirement isn’t on the cards for truckers right now. Daimler’s commitment shows the company is serious about the concept, but full autonomy is still some way off. Autonomous trucks (including platooning) have yet to be comprehensively proven on the open road.
Trucking companies will have to grapple with higher purchase or leasing costs for autonomous trucks, while evaluating the resulting labour savings.
Legislators will need to address liability loopholes – this is not specific to autonomous trucks, as it applies also to autonomous passenger vehicles and light commercial vehicles.
Autonomous trucks should bring some environmental benefits, whether powered by internal combustion engines or via electric power trains. The ability to travel off-peak may ease congestion problems – or will we simply see more vehicles on the road?
Here’s some more recommended listening on autonomous trucks, featuring management consultant Charles Edwards from GRA:
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