Autonomous vehicles will be the focus of the next MIT Enterprise Forum, Northwest Chapter, here in Seattle on October 29, 2014. You can register here. This is a subject that is racing (pun intended) toward transportation planners, trucking companies and shippers, auto manufacturers and auto owners. The idea of driverless cars, or autonomous trucks, is one that even most futurists believed was a decade or more away. But as we have written about here and here, the prospects for at least limited applications for autonomous cars and trucks for highway driving may be just around the corner.
For the shipping industry, two fundamental issues plague their future planning: safety especially related to driver fatigue, and the availability of truck drivers. Is it possible that autonomous trucks will begin to solve both of those issues? It appears so.
Mercedes recently tested their concept truck that is able to drive autonomously on open roads, using a combination of radar, sensors, GPS, and computing. As you can see in the accompanying videos, the driver is able to set the truck on auto-pilot, and the truck handles driving down the highway just fine, even with traffic and emergency vehicles in the vicinity. Mercedes labels this truck their concept 2025 vehicle, but it is quite easy to imagine that with the technology essentially ready now, we might see limited adoption in the next five years or so. The Mercedes spokesperson points out that the truck could be driven legally, in auto-pilot, in several U.S. states already.
Currently the idea is that a driver would be in the vehicle, and do other things or rest while the truck is self driving. That makes sense for now, but it is also possible to imagine a future where autonomous trucks operate completely driver free while on the highway, and pull into a driver pick-up station when they near a city, where a driver comes on board. This is not unlike the way the local pilots board in-bound ships to guide them into and out of port. Imagine a future where truck drivers are mostly local experts, and don’t have to waste time driving endless miles cross country.
When I addressed the American Trucking Association technology conference late in 2013 I recommended that fleet operators move up their timeline for autonomous trucks. But even a year ago it was not clear that things could move ahead this quickly.
For some technical details of the Mercedes 2025 Truck check this video.