While the growing use of self-driving cars continues to grab headlines, autonomous trucks are much more quietly emerging as resources that could become increasingly important for companies in a variety of sectors that rely on the vehicles for shipping.
Among the factors that might fuel growth of self-driving trucks is the challenge of finding experienced drivers. "The trucking industry in general is very concerned about finding drivers," said Raj Rajkumar, a fellow at IEEE, a technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology.
"Driving long-haul trucks all day long, spending days and weeks away from family, is not for all, Rajkumar said. "Future trends are not encouraging. With autonomous vehicles, the cost of the human labor, the second biggest component after fuel, and hiring issues become moot."
Autonomous trucks differ from autonomous cars in a number of ways, in terms of design. For example, aesthetic concerns are far fewer for trucks than passenger cars, Rajkumar said. "Attention needs to be paid [to] different configurations," he said. "Is a trailer attached? Multiple smaller trailers? Just the tractor without a trailer? From a cost standpoint, the relative increase in costs will also be lower for trucks."
It might be years, even decades, before industries such as oil and gas deploy driverless trucks, however.
"The oil and gas industry is highly safety-conscious, for the obvious reason that they are dealing with highly flammable fluids, " Rajkumar said. "In oil and gas processing plants, even the electronics that people use [such as smartphones] can cause a spark that in turn can ignite an explosion," Rajkumar said. "The electronics that are used in these contexts must meet very stringent safety requirements."
The transportation of oil and gas faces these same safety concerns. The risks are technical, regulatory, and social, Rajkumar said. "Who wants to see a closing gas truck in the rearview mirror without a human in the driver's seat while taking a family vacation?," he said.
A crash of an oil and gas truck can cause a lot more damage than the already significant effects of a semi-truck losing control, Rajkumar said. "As a result, casualty, insurance and liability concerns are paramount and the industry uses only human drivers with a very strong safety record," he said.
Once a long safety record that exceeds that of human drivers is established, "one can imagine that flammable cargo vehicles can also become fully autonomous," Rajkumar said. "There will come a time a few decades from now that fully autonomous gas trucks are deemed to be safer and more reliable."
Technologically speaking, we are getting closer and closer to widescale use of fleets of autonomous trucks. "However, a slippery spot on a wet road, icy conditions, heavy snow, lane closures. construction zones and accident sites are but a few examples of real-world scenarios that will take time to address," Rajkumar said.