Last updated: September 25, 2023
Mentally prepare yourself now because believe it or not, it’s not going to be much longer before autonomous trucks are traveling the nation’s highways. We don’t want you to experience a moment of terror when you see a big rig headed toward you with no one behind the wheel.
Google was the first to get an autonomous vehicle on the road back in 2009. It began testing the self-driving cars in the San Francisco Bay area. Known for its heavy city traffic and winding roads complete with steep hairpin turns, it was the perfect area to kick off the experiment. Today, they’re considered commonplace as they traverse across the country recording information for Google maps.
When will trucking companies have autonomous trucks on the road?
Nearly a dozen companies are in the process of developing their own brand of technology. As a matter of fact, TuSimple, a start-up company out of San Diego, is ahead of the game. They’ve partnered with the truck manufacturer, Navistar, and United Parcel Service (UPS). They’re already road testing the unique technology in Arizona and Texas.
Where does the DOT stand?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is behind the development of the autonomous trucking industry. It realizes that a new era for trucking is on the horizon and is partnering with others in the developmental phase to ensure the safe development, testing, and integration of automated vehicle technology.
DOT regulation of the automated trucking industry is passed on to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Its goal is to maintain the safe operation of autonomous trucks operating in interstate commerce. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a branch of the Federal government that has authority over the safety of vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS).
FMCSA has posted on its website that it is currently accepting comments regarding safety regulations that may need amending, revised, or eliminated to allow for the “safe introduction of automated driving systems (ADS) equipped commercial vehicles (CMVs) onto our Nation’s roadways.” All comments are being considered and may result in changes to rules and regulations.
What about the DOT drug test?
The FMCSA is aware that some of its requirements for commercial truck drivers won’t apply to autonomous trucks. And, it specifically noted that drug and alcohol testing is one of them. Naturally, that makes sense because a totally automated truck won’t have a driver inside at all.
“Supervised autonomy” testing is in progress now. We’ve already learned that Navistar and UPS have autonomous trucks on the road in Texas and Arizona. The trucks are making depot-to-depot autonomous runs but someone is riding in the cab ready to take the wheel if the need arises.
If things continue to go well, the riders will be removed sometime during the remainder of this year. When that happens, the trucks will be driving themselves from pickup to delivery with no one on board.
In the meantime, companies, like TuSimple, are requiring the “supervisory” drivers hired for the automated testing phase to submit to the DOT drug test. They participate in random drug testing as well.
Will the DOT eventually stretch its jurisdiction to require ADS programmers to be subjected to drug testing?
Time will tell.
Of course, it’s possible—likely, even—that ADS software companies already drug test employees. However, should the DOT require it, the programmers would be considered safety-sensitive employees and subjected to the DOT drug test.
However it all breaks down in the end, you can rest assured that the autonomous trucking industry will be strictly regulated.
Why do we need autonomous trucks?
We need to keep freight moving across the country and the trucking industry is number one in meeting that need. However, the trucking industry here in the United States has been experiencing a serious shortage of drivers since 2005.
By 2018, we needed nearly 60,800 truckers to fill the open driving spots nationwide. Sadly, things aren’t improving yet.
In fact, the American Trucking Association’s (ATA) Chief Economist, Bob Costello, believes that number is more likely to double by the year 2028. Moreover, the ATA reported that approximately 110,000 drivers are retiring every year. It’s going to take at least 1.1 million new drivers to fill the need over the next decade.
There are several contributing factors to the ongoing shortage and they include:
- Aging driver population
- Increases in freight volumes
- Competition from other blue-collar careers
- Pay rates aren’t increasing
- Lifestyle factors which include long periods away from home
Will they meet the demand?
There are a lot of business owners that hope so. The trucking industry has been trying to entice young adults to make truck driving their career choice to no avail.
It’s time to face the music.
The reality is that truck driving doesn’t appeal to millennials. This may largely be due to the fact that these young people would rather mold their work hours around their interests rather than vice versa.
Over-the-road trucking puts severe demands on drivers because time is of the essence in this industry. Truck drivers are responsible for seeing there are no disruptions in supply chains for food, essentials, and the other products we hold dear. Missing deadlines is serious business and, we all know that drivers aren’t in charge of determining them.
Perhaps if the large trucking companies switch to autonomous trucking, small business owners—who are really suffering right now can stay in business because hands-on drivers will gravitate to them.
Advantages and disadvantages
The thought of big rigs rolling down the highway without a driver is mind-boggling to most Americans. It was mind-boggling to imagine the thought of a motorized vehicle replacing the horse and buggy too, though, and look where we are now!
Some advantages of autonomous trucks transporting goods across the country are:
- The number of road accidents involving commercial truck drivers is expected to decrease—computer software doesn’t get sleepy or use drugs to help them cope with life on the road.
- Traffic jams and congestion will be occurring less often because autonomous trucks won’t be susceptible to delayed reaction time which often is the root cause of a traffic backup.
- The initial investment pays for itself over time due to increased efficiency and not having to pay driver salaries.
On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to consider too.
- Job loss tops the list, but when weighed against the fact that there is already a lack of drivers to fill open positions, it might be more appropriate to consider that a pro in the long run.
- Security concerns arise because software is vulnerable to hackers and other criminals. Even if someone is riding along supervising the operation, it’s possible for someone to infiltrate the system and override controls.
- Federal and state regulations are issues to contend with because whether or not autonomous trucks are allowed to operate within a state is determined on a state-by-state basis.
A new route to the future
It certainly appears that autonomous trucking is going to be the wave of the future. That may be a disconcerting thought for some, but meeting driverless trucks on the highway may become commonplace soon. When the day comes, know that companies that operate self-driven trucks will be held accountable if they don’t cross every “t” and dot every “i.”
Above all, keeping the highways safe for all who travel on them is the DOT’s top priority.
That’s how it rolls.