The days when friendly truck drivers would honk their air horns for kids on the highway are numbered because soon, trucks may not have human drivers at all. Instead, autonomous trucks are expected to become more prevalent in the coming years, as trucking companies seek to address the shortage of drivers.
Unlike driverless passenger cars, which are still facing developmental challenges, proponents of self-driving truck technology believe that it's already advanced enough to create fleets of autonomous trucks within a few years.
Currently, intrastate autonomous trucks are already allowed in 24 states, and self-driving trucks with human backup drivers are allowed to be tested in most states. However, for interstate travel, autonomous trucks still need clearance from the federal government.
Richard Steiner, the head of policy and communications for self-driving truck firm Gatik, emphasized that this is not a distant future but a present reality, and autonomous trucks are expected to become increasingly common across different markets over the next few years. In fact, they can become the future of the trucking business.
The challenge of preparing autonomous trucks for fleet operations has been greater than expected by their developers. Reports abound of companies working with autonomous technology downsizing, laying off staff, or closing down entirely.
Even optimistic supporters acknowledge that once these trucks are available, they will be largely limited to the Southwestern United States due to the limitations of the current sensor and camera technology used to perceive the environment.
The autonomous truck technology is vulnerable to obstructions such as mud, dirt, snow, ice, and fog, which are commonplace in regions like Massachusetts during the winter months.
Furthermore, the legal and public perception aspects of autonomous truck operations are significant obstacles that must be addressed before a substantial number of self-driving trucks can hit the roads of North America.
While it's true that there may be some obstacles to overcome in the development of self-driving trucks, both trucking companies and regulators are proceeding with caution to ensure the safety of this technology.
Some concerns stem from past accidents, particularly those related to Tesla's Autopilot feature, which is not a full self-driving system and still requires human supervision. Additionally, autonomous trucks are equipped with more advanced sensor systems, such as lidar, than most self-driving cars.
As a result, it seems that the development of self-driving trucks is progressing at a faster rate than that of self-driving cars.
The possibility of autonomous vehicle developers or society concluding that Level 4 and 5 autonomous trucks are not safe enough for public roadways raises the question of whether the billions of dollars and countless hours invested in research and development over the past decade have been in vain. However, the answer is negative.
The concept of "Smart" Infrastructure is being explored by developers of autonomous vehicle systems, which essentially enable trucks to operate independently while on the road. The technology primarily relies on data from radar, lidar sensors, and camera systems to gather information about the operating environment.
However, the absence of outside information from other vehicles on the road and structures along the route such as "smart" guide rails, lane markers, traffic lights, or road signs creates a potential hurdle for the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles.
Therefore, it is plausible that society might delay the deployment of autonomous vehicles until a network of connected vehicles and smart road infrastructure is in place to facilitate safe operations.
We believe that in the short run, research on autonomous vehicles will have more immediate and significant benefits for human drivers' safety. Even if autonomous trucks don't become available in the next decade, the technology that enables their advanced capabilities is already being refined to enhance the safety and productivity of human drivers on the road.
We are confident that various autonomous control systems, including lane-keeping, lane-changing assistance, merging assistance, lidar, radar, camera systems, adaptive/predictive cruise control, and electric steering systems, will become commonplace, if not mandatory, features in trucks and passenger cars in the near future.
These technologies are designed to directly aid human drivers. As these systems become more widely adopted, we expect the trucking industry to make significant investments in them to safeguard drivers, the general public, and their profits.
In the near future, we will witness a careful and limited implementation of Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous trucks in the American Southwest. Additionally, we may observe a high adoption rate of autonomous safety systems aimed at assisting human drivers in areas where human drivers are still required.
In any case, we are certain that the trucking industry will eventually shift towards autonomous technology. The only uncertainties are when this transition will occur and to what extent it will be adopted.
Autonomous trucks, like any other technology, are not perfect and are susceptible to occasional failures or errors. However, if autonomous trucks fail to deliver, the consequences could be significant, both economically and socially.
Economically, if autonomous trucks fail to deliver goods on time, it could disrupt the supply chain, causing delays, lost revenue, and increased costs for businesses. For example, if a truck carrying perishable goods such as food or medicine fails to deliver on time, it could result in spoilage and waste of valuable resources.
Furthermore, if autonomous trucks fail to deliver critical items such as medical supplies, it could result in serious consequences for patients and the healthcare system as a whole.
Socially, if autonomous trucks fail to deliver, it could also affect the livelihoods of people who rely on the transportation industry for their jobs. Many people work as drivers, mechanics, and logistics coordinators in the transportation industry.
If autonomous trucks fail to deliver and reduce the need for human workers, it could result in job losses and economic hardships for many people.
Overall, while the potential benefits of autonomous trucks are significant, it is essential to ensure that the technology is safe and reliable before implementing it on a large scale. Otherwise, the consequences of failures could be severe and far-reaching
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