Imagine needing to drive a truck from San Francisco to Philadelphia. Normally this trip would take days of attention, scanning the road for potential hazards to the 80,000 pound vehicle. If your truck could drive automatically during a ten-hour off-duty period, you could travel 550 miles of the journey in your sleep. That is what technology companies are currently working for, racing for even, since the demand for these self-navigating trucks is extremely high and the first company to bring one to market will make nothing short of a fortune.
The Six Levels of Autonomy
To get a better understanding as to why the race for Level 4 Autonomy is important, here are the commonly used levels and what each one means.
- Zero: fully manual. You might think of this as the common, everyday vehicle, but an overwhelming majority of vehicles created after 1990 are higher than this.
- One: mostly manual. Automatic transmission and cruise control are the first features that come to mind at level one. The work is still done by the driver, the work is just easier.
- Two: somewhat manual. The benchmark for this is the ability to have hands off the steering wheel for any period of time without risk, such as being able to detect lane markers and stay in between them, and neighboring vehicles.
- Three: somewhat automatic. The difference between levels two and three is the sophistication of the technology. While two is for any set of time, three is for long enough that the driver has the reasonable expectation to be able to do something else, such as reading or texting.
- Four: mostly automatic. The vehicle can drive itself in most conditions, including city streets and highways, but may be unable to maneuver rare circumstances, such as road work or huge influxes of pedestrians, such as near a stadium arena.
- Five: fully automatic. Essentially a pipe dream for now, level 5 would entail a vehicle being as adaptable, if not more adaptable, than a human. Dirt roads and icy inclines are no problem at this level. Level 5 is most commonly noted by a lack of a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and other options for driver control.
As of this moment we are on level 3, pushing to level 4. Trucks can operate on highways, especially if they are straight, but weaving through more complex city roads with traffic lights is more difficult.
Trucks that can drive themselves the entire way through a predetermined route would take much of the heavy lifting off of truckers for common shipments such as avocados from Mexico to northern California. The company to get theirs out to market first will obtain blank checks from many fleets. Currently, there are two major contending teams.
Just recently, as in not but a week before this article’s publishing, Waymo and Daimler have announced a strategic global partnership to put Waymo’s self-driving technology, normally reserved for cars, into heavy-duty trucks.
Waymo has already been working alongside Peterbilt, and will be adding Freightliner Cascadias to their testing regimen which is mostly done in Texas, but also includes some parts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The two companies hope to apply the technology to more forms of Freightliner and other Daimler brands, such as the Western Star, in the future.
While the partnership has no set timeline as of yet, Daimler once pitched a concept truck in Europe for 2025. Whether this partnership accelerates or decelerates this plan is currently unknown.
Navistar and TuSimple have also formed a partnership, as the former has purchased a minority stake in the latter.
A noticeable difference between TuSimple and Waymo is that while Waymo is focusing on having their systems in new trucks, TuSimple also hopes to produce packages that, when installed into older trucks, retrofits them to be more autonomous as well.
Navistar and TuSimple hope to have a level 4 automated International big rig out in the market by 2024.
Interestingly enough, Navistar has agreed to allow Traton, a company owned by the Volkswagen Group, to purchase it. If the deal goes through entirely, the race will be between two German manufacturing companies, separately paired with two American technology companies.
Current timelines give approximately half a decade before level 4 trucks hit the market, and with development, plans usually delay rather than finish earlier than expected. Trucking with full attention will still be the norm for a while. Whether autonomous trucks are good by making the job easier or bad by driving the rate-per-mile down is entirely up to you.