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Autonomous Trucks: Changing Landscape of Trucking

  Charlie Charalambous


By now, most of us have heard about OTTO, the self-driving vehicle that recently completed its first driverless delivery. The shipment was for Budweiser and started in Fort Collins and ended 190 kilometers later in Colorado Springs. It made headline news around the world and sparked many debates regarding the future of autonomous vehicles. What does this mean for professional drivers and their jobs?

To start, I think that it is important to understand that there are many different levels of autonomous vehicles both in and out of production. These are:

Level 0: The vehicle has no self-driving features, and the driver always has complete control. This is our traditional method of driving and no different from what we have been doing since cars were invented.

Level 1: The driver retains most of the controls in the vehicle, and some functions are automated (i.e. automatic braking system)

Level 2: When two or more of the controls can be automated at the same time (i.e. cruise control, lane keeping assist) providing some automated assistance to the driver.

Level 3: The driver only retains control in certain circumstances and can be expected to intervene when necessary. Some automakers have indicated they may skip this level in production and proceed to level 4 directly.

Level 4: Introduces nearly autonomous vehicles which require no driver interaction however the car will abort driving (stop the vehicle and park) if the systems fail.

Level 5: Completely driverless cars that will entirely remove human interaction at any level. Even the option of a steering wheel or gas pedals would be considered redundant at this point.

Depending on the research or whom you ask, there are a lot of different predictions as to when we will reach level 5. Some industry experts predict by 2025, while others say it could be many more years before we see this become a reality.

I think it is safe to say that the introduction of driverless vehicles is quickly becoming a reality and with that brings many advantages. These include:

  • Vehicle comfort
    • Vehicle interiors could be made more luxurious and spacious, designed for comfort rather than practicability
  • Relaxed travel
    • More time to relax while travelling
    • Think of a long family trip that you could start overnight, sleep for most of the ride and then arrive at your destination to start the day
  • Parking
    • Picture never having to stress about the difficulties of parallel parking again
  • Vehicles for the disabled
    • Vehicles could be designed for individuals with disabilities, currently preventing them from driving but now allowing them to experience owning a vehicle and travelling without assistance
  • Safety
    • Most crashes today (approximately 80%), are caused by driver error
    • If we eliminate the human element from the equation, we will reduce the number of incidents on the road

The advancing technology of driverless vehicles also brings forward some disadvantages, including:

  • Cost
    • New technology comes with a price, and it would be safe to assume that driverless vehicles would be expensive to start
    • Savings would likely only come once they are mass produced and available from all the major manufacturers
  • Technology issues
    • We have all experienced tech challenges in one form or another such as your computer freezing up or your smart phone breaking down. With an increased dependence on technology, we also increase the possibility of something not working properly.
    • Would it be possible for a hacker to access a vehicle’s operations system?
  • Safety
    • Without continued practice, our driving skills would ultimately diminish. If a driverless vehicle is not responding properly how will someone that has not driven for an extended period react?

What impact will autonomous vehicles have to the commercial transportation industry? At this point, it is still very difficult to say for sure what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of Canadian professional drivers that transport our freight from coast to coast. Some fear that the automation of vehicles may mean the end of truck drivers, however, I think we should look at this from a different perspective.

There will most likely always be a need for a driver because their job is more than just driving a truck. There are still many situations that require a driver to be in the vehicle, but he/she may not be driving; even the Budweiser delivery last year still had the driver in the vehicle. We should try to look at this emerging technology as a system to assist drivers rather than replace them. There will always be a need for someone to be in the cab, perhaps not driving, but there to assist and ensure that the cargo is transported safely and properly. The role of the professional driver is changing, and as an industry, we need to change along with it. The transportation industry should adapt and bring together current practices and be prepared to train drivers for new ways of doing things. Only time will tell but one thing is for certain, technology is changing the transportation industry, and we need to be ready to change with it.

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