Currently, there are more than 11 million road vehicles across the world that run on natural gas as a fuel. In the near future, however, many of those vehicles might not have drivers operating them at all — especially in the commercial trucking industry.
In an effort to both minimize the 500,000 annual semi-truck accidents and improve delivery efficiency, a number of companies are competing to develop viable self-driving trucks.
According to Tech Crunch, Embark’s autonomous truck just proved to potential naysayers exactly what it’s capable of: making a coast-to-coast trip from Los Angeles, California to Jacksonville, Florida. The self-driving truck did the 2,400-mile trip in just five days. The trip could have been completed much fast, too, but a passenger was on board at all times just in case the technology started failing and a driver had to step in and take control.
As soon as the technology is fully cleared and ready to run on its own, however, that long of a trip is expected to only take two days.
With the advent of this new autonomous roadway technology, many of the nation’s truck drivers are worried about losing their jobs. But Embark and other organizations want to stress that the goal isn’t to fully replace truck drivers with self-driving vehicles, but to improve efficiency, safety, and make long-haul trips more manageable.
“We’ve been disappointed over the last year to see a lot of stories about how self-driving trucks are going to be this huge problem for truck drivers,” said Alden Woodrow, product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber. “That’s not at all what we think the outcome is going to be.”
Joe Rajkovacz, the diverter of governmental affairs and commutations at the Western States Trucking Association agrees, saying that there are so many things a driver does from taking care of truck maintenance to physically handling all the cargo onboard.
“I just don’t believe that you’re ever going to see, at least in the world that’s imagined right now, this fully autonomous truck without anyone in it,” he said.
Another reason the push for autonomic truck driving is gaining so much steam is in hopes of improving driver conditions and better mileage and payment monitoring.
The U.S. economy loses an estimated $7.4 billion each day due to improperly filled out timesheets and truck drivers have been bending and breaking time clock rules for years.
Nowadays, however, truck drivers have to be careful to not exceed driving limits and certain technology prevents a truck from even operating after a certain amount of time or distance covered. A driver who operates a truck more than 12 hours in a single day is not only less aware of his or her surroundings, but is much more dangerous to themselves and anyone else out on the roads.
Drivers are currently restricted to 11 hours of driving per day and only 60 hours a week.
“This system often drives better than I do,” said Greg Murphy, who has been a professional truck driver for 40 years. Murphy now earns his living sitting in the driver seat of autonomous trucks, with his foot off the pedal, but ready to jump in at any moment. “My hands are always on the wheel, and I have to concentrate pretty hard to be ready. It’s actually harder than normal driving.”
Otto’s self-driving trucks carried 2,000 cases of Budweiser down Interstate 25 — from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
“If you believe the automation narrative that’s out there today, it is especially counterintuitive,” Woodrow added, “because the more self-driving trucks you have and the higher utilization they have, the more jobs it creates.”
Eric Berdinis, self-driving product manager of Otto believes that the country is about a decade away from having trucks with no driver inside it for the entire duration of a haul.
“We expect the government to mandate this technology eventually, and for truck manufactures to integrate it into their vehicles,” Berdinis added. “But new-truck development is on an eight-year cycle, and we’re not waiting.”
In addition to more research and development teams focusing on autonomous trucks, there are plenty more truck-related technological advancements planned for the next few years, including drive-by-wire to wireless control, glass cockpits, GPS integration, and 360-degree obstacle and lane departure detection.