With a beer run, Uber’s self-driving truck starts delivering
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Screenshot: Uber

Screenshot: Uber

Unlike self-driving freight trains, driverless trucks are closer to reality, catching up with UAVs if not highway regulations

Uber’s self-driving truck carried its first successful short haul trucking cargo this month in Colorado, delivering 51,744 cans of Budweiser 120 miles without any human intervention. Uber acquired Otto, the autonomous vehicle manufacturer that pioneered the system’s development, earlier this summer.

As part of a larger expansion, Uber now hopes to sign on more clients for both short and long haul operations through Uber Freight – most of these, of course, still with human drivers.

While Uber is piloting beer trucks, the US military is testing a system where one truck with human drivers would chain along several trucks behind in a convoy. There is some risk to such a system, as lead (and rear) vehicles are the ones most often targeted by attackers. But, by freeing up personnel the Army believes it will improve convoy safety overall, increasing the survival chances for the one actual crew present. Presumably, a similar chaining system could be used for civilian convoys as well.

The fact that trucks are being considered to transport cargoes as varied as beer, intermodal containers, Amazon packages, and animals shows what the biggest hurdle for standardization across the industry is: trucks carry so many different kinds of cargo each sector within the larger trucking industry will be governed by distinct rules and computer programming.

Helping human drivers

One area where existing tools could help human drivers is active safety technology, which is already being used by Volvo. A host of assistance functions have been designed to reduce ambient noise in the cab and integrate radar sensing, drift warning lights, automated manual transmission, and Volvo Enhanced Stability Technology (VEST) that helps drivers keep control of a vehicle in bad weather or other crisis situations.

A driverless option is appealing, though, given the many risks truck drivers face in their line of work. Long hours on the road lead to high levels of stress and other medical problems, especially dietary and chiropractic ones. Rushing to meet deadlines and stay awake sometimes encourages reckless behavior or substance abuse. Unsurprisingly, this demanding occupation faces a significant shortage of drivers: up to 40,000.

Uber’s achievement shows that these autonomous vehicles are indeed viable. But writing at KXLF.com, automation expert Timothy Carone cautions, “No company should expect that much of their long-haul trucking fleet will be driverless in 5-10 years.” (Indeed, Daimler’s planned autonomous truck, shown below, is envisioned for 2025.)

He instead predicts that aerial drones will take the place of many of these land-based routes, as it may prove easier to develop air control systems, heavy-duty cargo carriers, and landing terminuses than adapt trucks to driverless operations on existing highways and roads, or setting aside special roads for them.

Unlike a car, or even a bus, the truck would need to accommodate many more restrictions given bridge clearances, weight tolerance, no-truck road access bans, and safety regulations for hazardous or live cargo.

One problem that driverless cars face – a lack of US federal legislation governing their use across state lines – would be even more magnified for trucks since long haul freight often does cross state lines.

Without nationwide consistency, it would do a carrier little good to have to route its trucks on detours around states that do not want the trucks to come through or enact different laws for speed and maximum loads. With this in mind, Otto is already focusing most of its research into getting its vehicles ready to take to the interstate highway system.

Driverless freight trains will come well after trucks

It is worth noting that research into driverless freight trains has not progressed nearly as far as with trucks or even passenger trains. The biggest such project to date, a mining railway in Australia, was delayed in August. As with trucks, the main hurdle is the cost, opposition from human drivers, and the reality that unlike a self-contained subway system, the mining railway will, notes SmartRail World, “come into contact with road crossings, towns and other (non-automated) trains.”

In contrast, US transportation bodies have been much more accepting of trucks and intend to invest $3.9 billion in the technology.

(There is more enthusiasm for driverless trains in Europe, where wireless remote control technology is already commonplace for switching yards.)

Hardware, reports Fleet Owner magazine, probably only accounts for a fraction of the upgrade costs, including LiDAR. Most of the expenses will be concentrated in developing software to act in place of the human operator, though it will be possible to recoup the expenses through fuel savings and safety improvements, plus not having to pay drivers.

Along with these costs, there will also come a host of regulatory and insurance changes to deal with. One wonders, though, what the conversations will be like if a motorist takes up a driverless truck’s “How’s my driving? Call …” bumper sticker to report a tailgating robot.

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