30 Jul 2015
(Editor’s Note: In today’s Thursday Feature, we take a look at one possible solution to the current truck driver shortage: Allowing driverless truck technology that already exists to use the nation’s highways).
The current shortage of qualified truck drivers is approaching crisis proportions.
But with companies like Google, Apple and Mercedes-Benz working to develop driverless vehicles could a high-tech solution be right around the corner?
Why There Are Fewer Truck Drivers Today
Being a truck driver has always been a difficult job. Sitting in a cab for days at a time takes a physical toll on the body. And being away from family and a traditional, stable home life can take an emotional one as well.
Plus, until recently truck driving has been a relatively low-paying profession, especially when compared with jobs that require more formal education.
Then there are new federal regulations which limit how long drivers can remain behind the wheel without taking mandatory sleep breaks. These can cut into a driver’s ability to make money.
Cartage Companies Seek Solutions
Some trucking companies is responding by offering drivers higher wages. Others are seeking to have the laws changed so that younger drivers — some still in their teens — can legally get behind the wheel of the big rigs.
But there’s another possible solution that may sound like science fiction but actually is closer to reality than most people might think: Driverless trucks.
Trucks that use global positioning systems, radar, and the Internet to guide themselves without the use of human assistance are already a reality. Google developed its first self-driven vehicle in 2009 and since then its driverless cars already have logged more than 100,000 miles.
And those miles aren’t just on closed testing tracks. Lexus SUVs equipped with Google self-driving technology are currently being used on public roads in Austin, Texas. They are equipped with cameras, sensors, detailed street maps that include lane markers and traffic signals, and “Keep Clear” zones.
For the time being, these vehicles are supervised by two live Google employees. But for the most part, they are simply along for the ride: The vehicles themselves do nearly all the driving.
But Google isn’t the only big name seeking to get into the self-driving vehicle market. Mercedes-Benz has already begun advertising a new S550 sedan that can drive itself on freeways. The car can automatically center itself within a lane, keep a safe distance from other nearby vehicles, and brake and steer on its own to keep pace with traffic.
Not to be outdone, Daimler is developing a new Mercedes-Benz Future Truck, which is slated to be introduced into the market by 2025.
While the truck will have a human operator, once it reaches a minimum speed of 50 mph on the highway, the driver can activate an automated “Highway Pilot” that acts as a sort of auto-pilot for the vehicle.
The driver can then pivot the seat to face an office workstation, where they can perform normal business tasks, such as checking emails, doing invoicing, or dealing with other paperwork. The human then becomes more of a “transport manager” than a truck driver.
Automated Loading and Unloading
But it’s not just the truck drivers whose jobs may soon be taken over by robots. There also have been dramatic technological developments in automated unloading of trailers.
Caterpillar has offered driverless, semi-autonomous trucks to the mining industry for years. These vehicles can be operated remotely from a centralized control tower.
Earlier this year, Peterbilt demonstrated a driverless Class 8 heavy truck at the Texas Motor Speedway that uses cameras and sensors to operate with an accuracy of just two inches.
So Why Aren’t They On the Road Now?
The biggest obstacle to using driverless vehicles isn’t the technology. That already exists and has been demonstrated repeatedly to be more efficient and practical than using human operators.
It’s the push back automakers anticipate from their buyers that are slowing the introduction of automated vehicles into the marketplace.
Manufacturers want to build trust with the public so that they don’t fear this new technology once it’s introduced. That’s why they are slowly rolling out elements of the technology in small pieces — such as cars that can parallel park by themselves or trucks that can take over the driving on the highway.
It won’t be long before driverless trucks replace truck drivers permanently — probably within the next five years and definitely within the next decade. In the meantime, trucking companies will have to find other creative ways to deal with the current driver shortage.