The race to build autonomous trucks has involved the biggest tech start-ups and truck makers in the world, but the technology has not graduated beyond testing and development to full commercialization. Integrating the complex latticework of sensors, software and new components, has proved difficult for suppliers, manufacturers and developers. In reporting on autonomous trucks, the attention has fallen on the software that enables self-driving operations, alongside onboard sensors like radar, perception, lidar and cameras, which help the car navigate through its environment.
As important as these features are, self-driving trucks will in time also need to have a set of safety standards that will allow for SAE Level 4 self-driving trucks with zero human input or supervision under select conditions such as geographic area of road type. In the absence of human supervision, Level 4 trucks must possess redundant braking, steering, powertrain control systems and messaging, to ensure safety if ever there are component failures. The performance and redundancy requirements of a self-driving truck can only be met by the reinvention of the traditional truck chassis. This process will require a stair-step approach because without OEM, there will never be broad commercialization of self-driving trucks.
Strategic development partnerships will be at the heart of the efforts toward commercialization. An example of such a partnership is the one between Daimler and Waymo to build a self-driving version of the Freightliner Cascadia truck. The Freightliner Cascadia will be outfitted with Level 4 autonomous technology. The self-driving version of the Freightliner Cascadia truck will be on the market a few years from now. Through this deal, Daimler gets access to Waymo Driver, an ensemble of software, vision sensors and the computing system driving the platform. Waymo began in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, and has already introduced self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix as part of a ride-hailing service.
The same advances made with the Waymo project will have to be made with fully automated Class 8 trucks. The first step toward this goal is the mass production of the redundant components that TIer 1 suppliers and truck makers must develop and this is a long-term goal, not an overnight story. Furthermore, an evolutionary leap must be made from the Level 2 driver-assist capabilities in order to develop and deploy Level 4 trucks. For example, with the most advanced driver assist systems on the market today, which have features such as automated acceleration, braking and steering functions, the driver must, nevertheless, remain completely engaged at all times. There is still scope for the kind of accidents that give truck accident lawyers a lot of a business, if the driver is not fully engaged. That has to change.
The evolution from Level 2 to Level 4 systems is not in a straight line and requires a completely different mindset. Safety remains a paramount concern in the development of self-driving trucks.
Self-driving trucks does not mean the end of professional drivers. Many of these trucks are being designed for specific purposes and so, professional drivers will still be vital to the trucking industry. What is true is that we are entering an era in which professional drivers will share roads and trailers with self-driving trucks.