Realistically speaking, most of the items you have probably spent time in the back of a truck. Lorries, tractor trailers, semi trucks – no matter what you call them, these vehicles are important parts of a global process which ensures that the supply of just about any product can constantly meet its corresponding demand.

Therefore, it’s only logical to develop technologies that can improve the state of the supply chain and logistics industries. And for some automakers, one of the best ways to do it is to revolutionize its main workhorse.

Autonomous trucks

According to an article by MIT Technology Review, self-driving trucks may hit roads within a decade. Numerous companies have now set their sights towards developing autonomous versions of big-rigs. The San Francisco-based startup Otto for instance, have been outfitting lorries with micro-computers which process data from sensors that work in conjunction with the most important systems of a truck, most notably for steering and braking.

Each truck also comes with other navigational installations such as video cameras, accelerometres and even a radar to boost its self-guiding capability. Another crucial component is the LIDAR system which allows the vehicle to “make sense” of its surroundings.

A demonstration was conducted by allowing one of their self-driving trucks to run 200 kilometres on Colorado’s Interstate 25, albeit it was done under strict monitoring and other vehicles were deployed to ensure that the road was clear. Nonetheless, it was considered a success as the truck reached its destination without any major problems.

The battle ensues

autonomous truck

Otto has been at the forefront of developing autonomous trucks, and their concept has caught the attention of bigger firms including Uber which eventually absorbed the former last year. But Otto is just one of many key players in the race, and companies such as Peterbilt, Daimler and the Swedish giant car manufacturer Volvo are now intent on creating their own versions of self-driving trucks. The latter is even creating additional innovations which are designed to compliment a truck’s autonomous features.

Volvo is exploring the idea of ‘truck platooning’ through a collaboration with the trucking startup Peloton. Business Insider specified in a report that it has the potential to save on fuel costs by following another truck operated by Peloton. After a truck detects another one nearby, the cabin personnel of both vehicles have the option to turn on platooning. One truck leads and every action it takes is followed by the other behind such as accelerating, braking, and turning.

The human factor

truck driver

Although autonomous trucks are now being tested worldwide, the technology still seems far from taking the human driver out of the equation. For instance, the example in the previous section still requires a person to press a button to turn on the ‘platooning’ system. But the main controls are just the tip of the iceberg.

Given the complexity of the processes which involve big trucks, emphasised in the article ‘Why Self-Driving Trucks Will Still Need Drivers’ that robotic and computerised systems will never be enough. This begins at the loading docks where human intervention is needed to check whether a crate is correctly placed on the vehicle or if the goods are damaged while loading and so on. Even after delivery, a designated person still needs to supervise the unloading process.

Moreover, there are situations and decisions on the road that rely on human judgement. To understand better, the Telogis blog post ‘Automated Systems Still Need Human Touch’ used driving behaviour as an example. It was mentioned that drivers communicate through non-verbal methods such as hand signals and even eye contact which may be inaccurately interpreted by a machine – that is if it picks them up in the first place.

All things considered, it still remains to be seen if human truck drivers are to be completely removed from the big picture. At this point, Carl Johan Almqvist, Product Safety Head of Volvo’s truck division best described the current state of this innovation: “We’ll use the technology to support the driver, not to replace the driver.”