Autonomous Trucks: The State of Technology and Regulation

Many issues affecting truckers have been constant for more than a century.  Better roads, improved maintenance, and hazards of the road have always been topics of conversation for as long as there have been truck stop diners.

However, not even the most visionary of industry participants, as recently as 20 years ago, could have imagined that driverless trucks were coming over the horizon.  Nonetheless, that future is fast becoming a near-term reality as major players are testing advanced autonomous vehicle technology.

The Capability is Here

Without fully realizing it, those who created the Global Positioning Satellite System made the driverless vehicle a viable concept.  The many improvements and enhancements in artificial intelligence and miniaturized computer processing power provide the other major components of making autonomous vehicles a practical concept.  Both government and industry are now racing to establish the basic framework for defining how such capabilities will eventually become a part of the transportation landscape.

A recent post on Transport Topics takes note of the fact that the technology is actually progressing more rapidly than the legislation needed to put it to work on the nation’s roads.  This article shares the observation of Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and other legislators that such delays from states and the federal government may be the gating factor in taking advantage of driverless vehicles.  This is especially the case in the regulated trucking industry.

Avoiding a Patchwork Solution

The potential efficiencies and capacities of adding driverless trucking to the logistics chain are driving forces for many in the industry.  The growing concerns over the anticipated trucker shortage, as well as expectations of dramatically improved safety, add to the interest in this issue.  This also makes interoperability between states an essential requirement for tapping the potential capabilities of autonomous vehicles.

While legislation is lagging, it is not totally absent.  The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a forthcoming release of AV 3.0, the latest national effort to provide guidelines for cars, truck, transit systems, and related modes of transportation.  Congress is also introducing various bills targeting the development and use of autonomous vehicle technologies.

The Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee is also actively working to bring a cohesive vision to implementation of the new technologies.  It recently met to develop and present to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration a strategic vision for the industry.  A major focus at this time is ensuring that the required testing of such vehicles is conducted in a safe and comprehensive manner.

When Does the Future Arrive for Truckers?

With the basic technology in place and active testing underway, the real question for truckers and the industry is when will autonomous vehicles start reshaping the world of transportation?  The best guess by the most optimistic participants in the effort to introduce self-driving cars is that we will see them on the roads by the early 2020s.  That does not mean they will be allowed to operate as autonomous vehicles, but they will have the capabilities to do so.

The general expectation is that drivers now entering the workforce will see a hybrid environment, with rapid movement to autonomous vehicles until roughly 95 percent of the vehicles on the road in 2040 will be autonomous-capable.  That provides two decades of integration into the current infrastructure and allow time for the needed cultural and commercial adaptation.