Why autonomous trucks aren't a silver bullet for trucking

Carbon War Room
Seven fleets have stepped up to take part in Run on Less: Albert Transport; PepsiCo’s Frito Lay division; Hirschbach; Messila Valley Transportation; Nussbaum Transportation; Ploger Transportation; and US Xpress.

Autonomous trucks. Driverless trucks. Robo trucks. The technology that claims it will eliminate the need for drivers is all over mainstream media today. Autonomous trucks are being hyped as the next great thing to hit the trucking industry — a silver bullet.

They are being touted as the answer to a lot of the problems plaguing the trucking industry and as the way to make the trucking industry more efficient.

While it is true that autonomous trucks will bring some benefits to the trucking industry, the reality is that fully autonomous trucks driving on the nation’s highways are still fairly far off. Things such as public perception, cost and regulatory issues are yet to be addressed.

We need to remember that autonomy is a continuum, and there are steps along the way to reach the point of a driverless truck. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defined five levels of autonomous driving from 0 to 5. In Level 0 the driver controls all functions. Level 1 is the drive assistance level where the driver controls most things but a specific function can be done automatically. Level 2 means "the driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel and foot off the pedal at the same time." Level 3 still requires drivers but "safety-critical functions" are shifted to the vehicle. Level 4 autonomous vehicles perform all safety-critical functions and monitor road conditions. With Level 5 vehicles, the vehicle’s performance is equal to that of a driver in every driving scenario.

Today’s trucks already are equipped with technologies that fall on the autonomous scale. Collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control are two such technologies where some driving decisions are taken out of the driver’s hands.

Further on the autonomous scale is two-truck platooning, or Driver Assisted Truck Platooning (DATP), which has shown fuel savings improvements for both the lead truck and the following truck. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency completed a Confidence Report on this and concluded a fuel savings of around 4 percent as an average for each paired truck. This is something we are likely to see in a much shorter time frame than true driverless trucks.

And while all the talk of autonomous trucks and other "futuristic" technologies such as trucks powered by fuel cells catch the public’s eye, the reality is that full-scale deployment of these "hot" technologies is still pretty far down the road. Some predictions are that it will be 2030, 2040 or even 2050 before we see fully autonomous trucks driving on the nation’s highways.

Plenty of innovation aside from autonomy

While folks are working on turning autonomous trucks into reality, the rest of the trucking industry isn’t just sitting around and waiting.

Truck manufacturers are leading the way by continuing to improve the aerodynamics of the base truck and integrating engines and transmissions to improve the efficiency of the powertrain. They recently reinforced their commitment to improving fuel economy in part because their customers — truck fleets — are asking for more fuel-efficient trucks.

Component suppliers, too, are doing their part to make their products more efficient including using lighter-weight materials in their construction.

Most important, forward-looking, bold fleets are making the investment in these technologies to continue to push out their miles-per-gallon (MPG) numbers.

All this is taking place in an environment where fuel prices are low and where payback for technology investments takes longer and return on investment becomes more of a challenge.

I know the thought of driverless trucks is exciting to a lot of people, but we have to remember we are not looking at something that can happen overnight. Laws are still on the books in many states that require a driver be in a truck when it is operating.

So where does that leave us? We can sit around and wait for this next great thing or we can continue to make incremental gains in our drive to move the average fleet MPG from 6.4 to 9, as seven fleets are hoping to demonstrate when they participate in Run on Less, a first-of-its-kind cross-country road show that will feature real trucks hauling real freight.

It's a bird, it's a — SuperTruck

These seven fleets have invested in fuel efficiency technologies and practices that have them outpacing the average fleet and saving money on their fuel costs. And these fleets will continue to invest in new technologies. They closely watch the work of the Department of Energy’s SuperTruck program.

Trucks in that program are working on technology combinations that will get us to the 12-MPG level. One goal of the SuperTruck program is to identify promising technologies so manufacturers can work on making them commercially viable.

Commercial viability is the key. While things such as autonomous trucks and electric or fuel cell trucks sound sexy and interesting, their business cases are at this point unknown. As those technologies and others like them gain traction, the prices will come down and fleets will be able to invest in them.

For now, however, fleets need affordable technologies that are readily available so they can continue inching closer to 9, 10 and even 12 MPGs. 

The fleets’ wallets and our environment can’t wait for the next whiz-bang solution to come out to solve their driver shortage problem and improve their fuel efficiency. They need help today not only for their own bottom line but for the sake of our environment and improving the environment for everyone.

Then when the next great thing — such as autonomous trucks — becomes a reality, it will make trucks even more efficient.