The Road to Fully Autonomous Trucks Is Long, Complicated, and Tricky

However, quasi-autonomous trucks are already on the road.
Donovan Alexander
Elon Musk during the 2017 Tesla presentation.Waymo

Autonomous trucks will be here sooner than you think. In fact, partially autonomous trucks could be making their way onto our roads later this year. If you want to get technical, there are a few autonomous trucks already on our roads. However, we are still a ways away from crossing paths with fully autonomous vehicles on our way to work. No matter how much Elon Musk's Telsa charges you for fully autonomous capabilities on your next purchase, automotive autonomy is still very much in its infancy.

We use the term use trucks when discussing the billion-dollar trucking industry, responsible for shipping some of your favorite products across the country. And the term, "fully-autonomous", refers to truly driverless vehicles capable of operating with no human intervention whatsoever. The path to this revolutionary state will take time and extensive innovation. However, a host of companies are working hard to bring us closer to this future, including everyone's meme electric car company Tesla. 

As recent as 2016, America's first autonomous truck completed a successful trip. Traveling from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs and with a professional driver's assistance, the autonomous commercial truck could travel 120 miles (193 kilometers). Since then, tech-startups are racing to tap into the full potential of autonomous driving. Yet, on the truck industry's commercial and consumer side, there are many unanswered economic and technological questions. You will see semi-autonomous trucks on the road soon. However, fully-autonomous trucks are still a tremendous challenge. 

Autonomous technology isn't just all or nothing - it is a spectrum

Autonomous, artificially intelligent automobiles like Knight Rider will not be overtaking you on the road anytime soon. This sci-fi-inspired idea of autonomy is not the full picture. There are multiple levels of autonomy. Here is what you should know about automotive autonomy. 

Level 0 - This right here, you the everyday car that you come across each day. The only feature that makes this vehicle "autonomous" is its cruise control function. Almost any car that you purchase today features level 0 or no automation. 

Level 1 - This is where cruise controls evolve, offering drivers some assistance. As the name implies, adaptive cruise control gives drivers lane-keeping assistance to help alleviate driving fatigue. The 2018 Toyota Corolla and 2018 Nissan Sentra both featured adaptive cruise control. Using radars and/or cameras, the truck or car is capable of feats like braking when traffic slows and resuming when traffic clears. 

Level 2 - Also known as partial automation, if a truck features level 2 automation, it is able to "take control at a given moment." Though this form of automation still requires a driver's hand on the steering wheel, this level of autonomicity can control the speed and steering of a vehicle. Tesla's autopilot, Audi's Traffic Jam Assist, and Volvo's pilot assist all fall in this category. 

Level 3 - Here, we find the line between the technology we have now and the technology expected to come in the next few years. The most advanced autonomous trucks can be found here. At level 3, autonomous trucks can drive themselves, but in only ideal conditions and with limitations, such as limited-access, divided highways and maintaining a certain speed. A driver is still needed to take over if conditions fall below ideal. 

Level 4 - We are not completely here yet. Nonetheless, we are getting close. Level 4 autonomous vehicles are capable of driving themselves without human interactions under a number of conditions. Currently, companies like Waymo are testing and developing Level 4 vehicles able to drive themselves in most environments. 

Level 5 - When you hear the term autonomous, this is probably what you think of. Here we see full automation. There are no humans involved. Here trucks are entirely driverless. Depending on who you ask, we are still a ways away from Level 5 automation. But, there are some exciting things in the pipeline. 

Companies like Aurora, TuSimple, and Waymo are working on making autonomous freight trucks a reality 

Yes, companies are racing to carve out their own slice of the pie in the inevitable autonomous freight truck market. According to recent reports, the global freight trucking market was estimated to be valued at $4.2 Trillion in 2020. The market is expected to expand to $5.5 Trillion by 2027. This complex network and system are expected to be drastically disrupted by autonomy. One of the leaders behind this disruption is TuSimple, "the world's largest and most advanced self-driving truck company."

Providing autonomous trucks, semi-trailer, and autopilot freight vehicles, Chinese startup TuSimple offers clients like UPS and foodservice delivery giant McLane, level 3 autonomy for package deliveries. The company, which has been called, "the world's first autonomous freight network," currently has at least 20 customers that rely on their semi-autonomous truck. With plans of expanding their fleet of vehicles and their routes, expect to see more of their semi-autonomous trucks in the future. 

The Road to Fully Autonomous Trucks Is Long, Complicated, and Tricky
Source: Waymo

The alphabet-owned Waymo is on the same route. Waymo offers clients freighting opportunities that range from cross-town to cross-country transportation. Started in 2017, the company is currently testing semi-autonomous freight trucks in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Waymo is expected to expand its routes this year, as well as in the following years. As for TuSimple, they are already operating in China and are currently testing vehicles in Texas and in some southwestern and southeastern states. By 2023, they want to expand their routes to Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida. 

They are not the only companies working on autonomous freight trucks 

Daimler, Embark, Einride, and Volvo are all working on autonomous truck platoons. Starting with Daimler, the automotive veteran plans to have Mercedes autonomous trucks on the road by 2025. Using a Highway Pilot system, Mercedes hopes to create a vehicle capable of navigating the highway without human assistance. The company announced in CES 2019 that it would be investing hundreds of millions in the project "to skip Level 3 autonomy technology". 

Embark is another company making waves in the autonomous freight truck world. Founded in 2016, the company has been working to create trucks capable of navigating multi-road freeways with ease. Like the other companies on this list, Embark aspires to create autonomous networks capable of delivering goods across distances with little to no human assistance. 

Autonomous trucks will be disruptive and costly. 

The Road to Fully Autonomous Trucks Is Long, Complicated, and Tricky
The upcoming Tesla semi-truck. Source: Tesla

In the United States alone, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers. Within the freight trucking industry, there are around 8.7 million individuals employed. Autonomy, whether it is full autonomy or semi-autonomy, will change this. According to the financial institution Morgan Stanley, the freight industry would save $168 billion annually by using autonomous technology, some of it on salaries, with other savings coming from improved logistics. The adoption of autonomy is a growing concern in the truck-freight industry.

As we covered during CES 2021, autonomous truck companies like Aurora are working hard to combat the inevitable job losses. "How can we offset the job loss of autonomy?" asked Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, Director of Partner Product & Programs. "It needs to be a thoughtful transition. It will take a joint effort across industries, governments, and relevant stakeholders." Companies like Aurora are training their drivers, providing them with the skills needed to manage autonomous systems, while at the same time collaborating with them to perfect these same autonomous systems. 

Will trucks be completely autonomous next year?

Short answer: No. But to elaborate on the question, let's go over three major presumptions when discussing autonomous trucks.

  1. Autonomous trucks will hit the roads sooner than autonomous cars because businesses are not as resistant to change as the average citizen.
  2. Autonomous trucking is expected to be cheaper due to reduced labor, boosted fuel efficiency, higher productivity, and fewer accidents.
  3. Autonomous trucks are safer because of advances in complex systems of braking and spatial awareness. 
The Road to Fully Autonomous Trucks Is Long, Complicated, and Tricky
Source: Daimler

While we have made progress towards these notions, they are still far from set facts. If anything, companies are just as anxious about autonomous vehicles as consumers, further slowing overall adoption. Even more so, the realms of Level-5 autonomy are still far away. Any autonomous trucks that you come across on the road will be driver-assisted. Right now, most trucks will use autonomous technology more as an auto-pilot than as a driverless solution. Furthermore, unexpected expenses, and legal and safety concerns, are keeping the technology from evolving beyond its current boundaries. 

Fully autonomous trucks will probably not be available for a while

Trucks that operate without the need of a driver are not on the horizon this year or the next. All vehicles require a driver to keep them operating. While Cadillac, Mercedes, and Volvo all have autonomous vehicles in the immediate pipeline, these vehicles are only capable of driving themselves down highways as long as drivers are present and vigilant, and nothing too weird happens along the way.

That is about it. Semi-autonomous trucks will appear in the next few years for sure. But for fully autonomous ones you are going to need to wait. Don't count them out; but just don't expect them too soon. As Bill Gates once said, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten."

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