All eyes are on Tesla and self-driving cars. However, self-driving trucks may be on our roads much sooner! But those who fear that the trucker job will become obsolete in a few years can reassure themselves. It is not that easy to replace a human with a machine.
The advantages of self-driving trucks
It sounds really good. The truck does not tire, has no concentration problems, can drive a lot longer than a human, drives more consistently and thus more efficiently … the list of advantages of self-driving trucks is long. Radar systems, cameras and more than 400 sensors per vehicle ensure that other vehicles and obstacles are detected reliably. The system can initiate full braking within a tenth of a second. This makes it significantly faster than a human driver, who needs at least 1.4 seconds – even more depending on their form on the day.
In the US state of Florida, another type of new logistics has been tested that includes self-driving trucks. In “drone delivery”, drones bring airborne deliveries from moving trucks to their destination. The driver of the truck loads the drones while the car drives autonomously, and releases them through the sunroof. The truck follows its prescribed route, and the drone returns to the truck after delivery to pick up more packages. Especially in far away, poorly populated areas, this interplay of self-driving trucks and drones can make great savings for the delivery companies.
For the more densely populated Germany, perhaps what is more exciting is the possibility of several trucks joining together in convoys, in what is called platooning. This allows the rear vehicles to use the slipstream of the front vehicle and save fuel. The trucks maintain a distance from each other of only 15 metres. Since each action of the front vehicle is immediately passed on to all the other vehicles, this small distance is sufficient. The drivers of the rear vehicles also get the view from the windscreen of the front vehicle transferred to their monitors so that they can always see what the first driver sees. To bring about this convoy and to dissolve it, manual commands of the drivers in the cabs are needed.
Change takes time
In 2017, the International Transport Forum (ITF) presented a study at the World Transport Forum in Leipzig. By 2030, about 50 to 70% fewer truck drivers would be needed in the US and Europe. That would significantly improve efficiency and safety in road traffic.
The study, also presented by the ITF in 2018, sounds a little different. Where man AND machine can both make decisions, driving can become even more unsafe than before. One of the authors of the study emphasised that one of the claims often asserted cannot be substantiated, namely that autonomous driving could prevent up to 90% of all accidents. There is too little data to prove this. Above all, this figure is a prognosis for completely autonomous driving and not the currently possible partially autonomous driving on well-known routes.
With the current state of research, the driver still has to be in the driver’s cab and must always keep an eye on the road. The time when he can take a nap or read a book while driving is still a long way off. For example, if a lane is blocked, the driver still has to manually steer over to the other lane, and the platooning still needs to be manually dissolved before roadworks.
Furthermore, there are problems with the sensors and the cameras in heavy rain, snow and hail, dust or mud. This can be seen, for example, in the seminar paper “Sensors in Automotive Scenarios” by the Department of Computer Science at the University of Magdeburg: Above all, the reliability of optical and optoelectronic devices is impaired by dirt.
Ultrasonic sensors can also fail if heavily soiled. The same applies to laser scanners used in outdoor applications. Manufacturers such as Götting are issuing warnings that in “extreme weather” the emergency stop may be triggered.
Also for deployment in urban traffic a great deal of research still needs to be done. How well the sensors work, for example, if a child suddenly runs out into the road, is not yet clear. Urban traffic is probably too complicated in other respects for the autonomous trucks. Sudden road closures, badly parked cars, refuse collections, events and many other eventualities require the mind of a human being, who can assess the situation and make informed decisions thanks to their experience. This also applies to rural areas that are not well covered by navigation devices. Again, truck drivers will still be required in the foreseeable future.
This view is also shared by the Chief Executive of Daimler Trucks, Martin Daum. His company is currently investing heavily in research into platooning. However, in an interview with “Automobilwoche” in February 2018, he said he does not expect a breakthrough in the near future for autonomous trucks. The incalculables, especially in urban traffic, are too numerous, the question too uncertain of whether it is possible to dispense entirely with the presence of a human who intervenes when necessary.
Other obstacles that emerge along the road to the autonomous trucks concern safety. A vehicle that is a moving computer at the same time is susceptible to software errors and attacks by cybercriminals. Be it that clever minds could possibly give the vehicle new destination coordinates, whether it is someone targeting the entered data, an autonomous truck must meet completely new demands in terms of IT security. Also many legal questions concerning possible damage claims and the matter of insurance are still unclear.
The job of the driver is changing
If you work as a truck driver, there is no need to worry about your job. In view of the current shortage of drivers and the many obstacles that research on autonomous trucks still have to clear, you are not replaceable for the time being. However, you should be aware that some things will change. For example, you will be given various training sessions to teach you how to handle the new trucks and how to interact with other drivers.
Once you have mastered the commands, you can look forward to a much more relaxed driving experience! However, we are still talking about pleasant anticipation here, since the approvals and the standardisation of the achievements to date for different makes are in the mid to distant future. According to the study “Delivering Change – The Transformation of the Transport Sector by 2025” by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, every third truck will be semi-autonomous by the year 2025. There is not even the mention of complete autonomy in this study.