Just about every week, we see fresh news about the latest developments that will bring driverless vehicle operation to American highways. While passenger auto manufacturers continue to make strides toward automated driving, it’s the trucking industry that is currently expected to adopt driverless technology first.
It’s not that anyone will see trucks without drivers zooming down the interstate right away. Instead, the trucking industry is likely to phase in different aspects of driverless operation over time, with the lowest levels of automated trucking expected to appear soonest. But just how soon can that be?
In a white paper released in September 2015, the Automated Driving and Platooning Task Force of the American Truck Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council sought to match particular aspects of driverless vehicle operation to a realistic timeline for industry deployment.
The ATA task force’s conclusions as to automated heavy vehicle operation discusses different applications of the new technology in terms of the specific driving task to be automated and the level of automation that the system will require.
The various levels of automation are defined in Standard J3016 as developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers International (SAE) in 2014. Since then, the SAE’s levels of automation from 0 to 5 have been adopted throughout the industry. Moreover, government regulators have incorporated the SAE levels into their own planning to ensure the safe implementation of automated driving technology.
The ATA task force focused on automation in Class 8 vehicles, which primarily include 18-wheelers. Below is a summary of the timing of different driverless technology applications as projected by the task force.
Self-Driving Technologies and Estimated Timelines
Traffic Jam Assist: Available in passenger cars since 2013, this system allows the driver to turn braking and acceleration functions over to an automated system in stop-and-go traffic conditions, such as congested on-ramps, parking lot exit queues, rush hour toll plazas, or construction zones. Typical speeds while moving are generally well under 30 mph, and the system generally shuts off at about that speed. While traffic jam assist systems are designed to handle steering as well as braking and speed control, drivers are expected to avoid periods of hands-free driving that last more than about 10 seconds. Depending on whether the driver maintains steering, this is either a Level 1 or Level 2 system. The ATA task force anticipates that this technology will become widespread in the trucking industry in the 2017-19 period.
Automated Trailer Backing: Many less experienced truck drivers can handle highway driving just fine, but encounter problems with backing a trailer into a loading dock, especially in a busy freight yard. Level 2 automation will allow the truck to park itself with considerable savings of time and stress. This application of driverless technology is expected to arrive in 2018-20.
Highway Pilot: This is essentially fully automated driving under continuous human supervision. Managing all aspects of acceleration, braking and steering, highway pilot systems in trucks are expected to appear first as a Level 2 technology in 2018-20, with the driver remaining responsible for monitoring traffic and road conditions. A few years later, in 2020-23, the ATA task force expects the highway pilot systems to perform at Level 3 automation, with the driver no longer responsible for constant monitoring. The driver must stay ready to resume control of the vehicle when prompted by the highway pilot system.
Automated Movement in Queue: Similar to traffic jam assist technology, this automation feature will be specific to trucks at ports, warehouse complexes and other facilities where all the vehicles are trucks. Movement of the line of trucks can be managed by individual vehicle systems or by vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication control. Because queue management will generally take place away from public roads and mixed traffic, the ATA task force projects industry adoption of this Level 3 technology as early as 2018-2020.
Automated Off-Road Hauling: Fully driverless heavy truck operations are already in use at remote mines in Australia, Canada and South America. This is the first commercially significant application of Level 4 automation in trucking, where no driver is needed under strictly limited operating conditions.
Driver Assistive Truck Platooning (DATP): This technology essentially gives a lead truck control over one or more following trucks. The lead truck manages the other trucks’ speed and braking through continuous digital communication between the participating vehicles. The 2015 ATA task force white paper anticipated that Level 1 DATP platooning, with each truck steered by its own driver, would come into commercial use in 2016-18.
Highly Automated Truck Platooning: This is DAPT technology operating at higher levels of automation. At Level 2, the digital systems assume control of the steering. At Level 3, automation takes care of monitoring the road as well. Drivers will remain in the vehicle ready to resume control, but are much less involved with vehicle operation than they are in Level 1 platooning. The ATA task force expects Level 2 truck platooning to appear in 2020-22, with higher levels of automation remaining further into the future.
In general, the lower the level of automation involved, the sooner automated trucking technologies are expected to come into commercial use. In fact, truly driverless truck operations are going on right now, just not anywhere near general traffic. The ability of truckers to take full advantage of automation does not appear to depend on technological innovation, but instead on the willingness of the industry to commit to it.
State and federal lawmakers will also play an important role in realizing the potential of driverless technologies. Optimum deployment of certain systems, such as truck platooning at any level of automation, will require revision of state motor vehicle codes to allow tailgating with qualified DATP systems, just to name one simple example of the kinds of legislative action necessary to bring automated trucking into reality.
Consequently, it seems very likely that automated trucking will advance at an uneven pace around the nation, depending on the willingness of different state legislatures and motor vehicle departments to accommodate the new technology. Even with this caveat in mind, many American motorists will probably see for themselves the first signs of automated trucking on interstates either later this year or sometime in 2018.