In April 2017, Navigant Research released a ranked list of the manufacturers most likely to achieve production of autonomous motor vehicles capable of operating at Level 4 automation within ten years — fully driverless operation under defined conditions, such as clear weather, low congestion, or controlled-access highways. Though the list emphasized passenger vehicles, with Ford, General Motors, and Nissan in the top three spots, we thought it worthwhile to look at truck manufacturers to see which ones appear at the end of 2017 to be ahead of the pack in putting automated big rigs into production.
While it’s fair to say that every truck manufacturer is working toward driverless vehicle production in the near-to-intermediate term, these efforts are proceeding at an uneven rate. Moreover, some companies, such as Daimler’s Freightliner division, appear to have eased back from an early commitment to driverless technology. A Freightliner drove itself across the Hoover Dam in 2015, but only two units of that model have been produced to date.
Uber’s ambitions to put self-driving trucks on the road are complicated by a spotty record of regulatory compliance and a major patent infringement suit filed by Waymo, Google’s driverless-vehicle subsidiary. Waymo alleges that two key employees left the company to join Uber with improperly obtained documents containing trade secrets. Originally due to go before a jury in October, the trial was postponed to December due to discovery battles. Depending on the outcome of the case, Uber could face a major setback if the jury finds that its driverless technology depends on stolen technical information. Uber only placed 16th on the Navigant Research list.
Volvo has been deeply involved in driverless truck technology for years, but it seems to be concentrating on niche applications, such as garbage collection and sugar cane harvesting. For passenger vehicles, Volvo is moving at a faster rate. It has entered into a partnership with Uber to test self-driving cars in Arizona, and it hopes to produce a “deathproof” car by 2020. Volvo is ranked 8th on the Navigant Research list.
American truck manufacturer Paccar, which produces Kenworth, Peterbilt, and DAF models, has teamed up with computer gaming graphics leader Nvidia to develop its own autonomous vehicle capacity. Peterbilt committed to production of test models earlier this summer. Meanwhile, Nvidia has worked with Volvo, Audi, Tesla, Toyota and other automakers, with its integration of sensor technology with artificial intelligence recognized as among the most sophisticated in the world.
While Paccar may well have a technological edge toward making automated trucking in the United States a reality, a relatively late entrant into the market has already begun taking deposits on orders projected to ship in 2019. Tesla, ranked only 12th on the Navigant Research list last spring, unveiled its electric Semi in November 2017, after announcing its plans to do so about the same time Navigant Research released its list in April.
The Tesla Semi has one gear, an effective range of 500 miles, and can go from 0 to 60 pulling 40 tons in just 20 seconds. The company claims that the battery can recharge in 30 minutes. Within days of presenting the new Semi to the world, Tesla took orders on several dozen units, including 15 trucks sold to Walmart.
Right now, it appears that Paccar and Tesla are leading the way toward driverless trucking, with plenty of help from software, graphics and artificial intelligence leaders around the world. Daimler might eventually recover the leading role it held when it drove without a driver in Nevada in 2015. Whichever company turns out to lead the market in autonomous trucking in the years to come, it seems clear that the technological aspects of this trend will remain ahead of the legal, social and broader economic implications of driverless trucking for at least several more years.