Trucking automation is one of the hot topics regarding the future of the trucking industry. Although there are many theories about how it will affect the future, automation is already present, and it has an impact on every company driver and their work. Self-driving trucks may come to our mind first when discussing automation, but there is much more to consider here. So, what is trucking automation exactly? What will its impact on the industry be – how will it affect road safety, and will it solve the truck driver shortage? Read on to find out.
What is Trucking Automation?
Trucking automation is the process of utilizing various AI-based software and sensors for controlling and driving commercial vehicles. Trucks that feature this technology need less intervention from human drivers. These features are mainly used to assist the truckers, making their job easier. They include lane and brake assistance, speed adjustment, and adaptive cruise. Most of the top-rated trucks have at least some of these features. The final instance of automation, on the other hand, would mean creating a self-driving truck that eliminates the need for human guidance.
What are the Levels of Trucking Automation?
Since not all automated vehicles are fully autonomous, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has developed a system of classification that describes the degree of driving automation for a given vehicle. This system applies to all motor vehicles, including trucks.
Level 0 refers to vehicles with no automation. These are fully human-operated vehicles, that may include some support systems like stability control, collision or blind-spot warnings, or even braking assistance.
Level 1 vehicles offer driver assistance by featuring at least one driver support system. It can be either steering assistance or assistance with accelerating and braking, but not both, as this would mean that the vehicle has level 2 autonomy. So, a truck driver may get help with maintaining distance from other vehicles or lane-centering and lane-following. The driver still has to be ready to take control of the truck at any moment.
Level 2 vehicles have partial driving automation. They feature automatic braking and lane changing, as well as self-parking. They take over certain aspects of driving in some scenarios, but the driver has to be alert at all times.
Level 3 automation systems can make decisions based on changing situations on the road, which means they can change lanes, accelerate around other vehicles, etc. The driver could potentially engage in other activities but still has to be alert and ready to intervene.
Level 4 refers to a very high level of automation. These vehicles are limited only by geographic boundaries and severe weather, which may cancel their autonomous operation. Aside from that, they can operate with no human interaction.
Level 5 of driving automation means there are not even geographic or weather limits and these vehicles only need humans to insert the destination point.
What is the Impact on the Trucking Industry?
There are many speculations about the impact trucking automation will have on the industry. While the automation process has begun and some impact is apparent already, it is important to also understand the future changes it will bring.
Safety is, naturally, the biggest concern regarding trucking automation. Self-driving technology has to be tested thoroughly in order to pose a safe alternative to human drivers. Malfunctioning technology can be a major safety hazard, and if there’s no human driver to intervene, the risk is even greater.
But automated vehicles can also increase safety significantly, and this is one of their primary functions. The features that are present in most vehicles today (braking assistance, collision warnings, etc.) serve this very purpose. Humans can make errors, and it’s great to know there are AI systems to make up for some of these mistakes. So, if done correctly, automation should make roads a lot safer.
Truck Drivers’ Jobs
Although truck automation systems are taking over some aspects of a driver’s job, we believe that the impact in this area will be a bit different from what most people expect. The development of self-driving trucks is aimed mainly at long-haul driving. While a truck with a higher automation level can drive the long highway miles, a human driver will likely be needed to take on the first and last parts of the route through the more complex roads.
So, the primary goal of trucking automation isn’t replacing the drivers but reducing their workload, improving work conditions, changing truck driver lifestyle for the better, and increasing safety. By complementing human drivers, this technology should reduce the effects of the truck driver shortage. This, however, will not be achieved by eliminating the need for new drivers, but by making the job easier, safer, and more appealing to human drivers.
When Could We Expect Full Automation?
As we already said, there are several levels of automation, and we can consider some of them practically already implemented. Achieving full automation would mean getting to level 5, which means there would be no need for a human driver whatsoever. In today’s world, it is hard to give precise estimates of the development in the technology field. Although self-driving trucks are being tested already, we believe that the need for human drivers won’t disappear any time soon.
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Mia is a Fleet Manager and Recruiter at Extra Mile International, based in Chicago. Mia is over 5 years in the trucking industry while driving trucks for more than 3 years.