Plenty has already been said about the prospects of HGVs one day driving themselves – and real-world trials of truck ‘platoons’ are already underway in locations around the world, where one truck with a human driver leads a convoy of self-driving drones close behind it, increasing freight capacity and theoretically reducing congestion.
But if you’ve ever had to overtake a lorry quickly or drop back to pull in behind it in order to make a motorway turn-off, you might reasonably want there to be someone at the wheel just in case your manoeuvre goes awry.
So will our road freight one day be carried in vehicles with no humans onboard at all? Some of the biggest names in tech and automotive seem to think so – but what are they working on already?
Tesla and the Autonomous Semi
Elon Musk’s Semi has been making headlines since being unveiled at a Tesla press event. It’s not a fully driverless vehicle, but it comes with Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot system, which aims to improve its safety performance on real-world roads, compared with conventional trucks.
Significantly though, it does include platoon capabilities, whereby only the front truck would need a driver, while multiple Tesla Semis could follow on behind automatically.
In the UK’s current road haulage market, this is an important development, with an estimated shortage of qualified drivers reaching into the tens of thousands.
The HGV driver market is sorely undersupplied at present – so far from being a question of people losing their jobs, this kind of technology is actually a crucial way to bridge the gap between freight capacity and the number of drivers licensed to operate an HGV.
If you think Uber just do private hire taxis, think again. The company’s Advanced Technologies Group recently published an article via Medium that looked at the future of trucking.
In it, the Uber ATG team explained how a more flexible approach to allocating freight capacity where loads are needed could allow driverless trucks to support an even more prosperous industry overall.
Their vision does not see an end to human drivers, but instead has them working alongside driverless fleets to cover both long-haul and local deliveries.
America’s driver shortage is on an entirely different scale to the UK’s, with nearly a million more trained drivers needed to cater for demand in the coming decade.
Self-driving trucks again don’t signal mass unemployment in a sector that sorely needs more new entrants, but instead could help to plug that gap and keep final-mile deliveries on schedule.
What do self-driving trucks mean for the future?
If these automotive tech giants have their way, we can expect to see platoons and convoys with either just one human driver in the lead truck, or potentially no humans at all, covering long-distance freight routes that are unsociable for humans to drive.
Technology is already in development to allow convoys to split up around slip roads, so you’ll never find your exit blocked by a solid line of three or four HGVs – although this is still very much on test.
But ultimately if the tests go well, it sounds positive for the industry, the environment and even for the general public, as there should be no shortage of drivers to bring you those Amazon packages in the years to come.