Trucking is the backbone of manufacturing logistics in the United States. So much so that 71% of American freight is moved by truck. As of 2019, more than 3.5 million people were employed as truck drivers. This makes driving large tractor-trailers or delivery trucks one of the largest occupations in the country.
When discussing the future of trucking, many people first think of the threat of autonomous trucks taking over. Some people have estimated that autonomous trucks will eliminate 2-3 million truck driver jobs in the coming years. However, that problem is likely overstated. Although this may seem like something that is closer to reality than ever before, full automation is still pretty far off.
The 5 Levels of Automation
In the discussion about when autonomous trucks will take over the future of truck driving jobs, it’s important to understand what the definition of automated driving is. The current standards were set by The Society of Automotive Engineers. According to their standards, there are a range of 5 levels of automation. When these levels can be adopted will determine the future of trucking. Level 0 is no automation and level 5 is full automation. The amount of human interaction necessary decreases with each level increase.
Level 0 Automation
Level 0 automation is when vehicles are controlled by human drivers with no support from a computerized assistance system.
Level 1 Automation
Level 1 is considered “Driver assistance” or “hands-on driving.” These vehicles are controlled by both a driver and an automated system. This system could work in a variety of ways, but the driver usually controls the steering. The automated system could have certain control over the brakes and the speed of the vehicle. At times, the engine power may be controlled by the system to ensure that the vehicle can maintain a certain speed. Sometimes parking assistance is also available in level 1. In this case, the speed is controlled by the driver, but the steering is done by the system. Still, the driver has to remain alert and take over if any problems arise.
Level 2 Automation
Level 2 is partly automated driving or sometimes referred to as “hands-off driving.” The driver will monitor the driving, which is done by the automated system. Still, in a situation where the system fails or can’t do its job, the driver has to take over. For safety reasons, it is mandatory that the driver keeps their hands on the steering wheel at all times. This allows for them to take control of the vehicle extremely quickly in the case of a problem.
Level 3 Automation
Level 3 is called “highly automated driving” or “eyes off.” It is in this stage that the driver is not required to be constantly monitoring the driving or the road. The system can perform on its own without relying on human interference. For a vehicle in level 3, the emergency brakes are automatically applied when or if any problem occurs. It is only during adverse or critical conditions that human intervention may be necessary for these vehicles. The specific situations where this is necessary are laid out by the manufacturer of the vehicle.
Level 4 Automation
Level 4 is considered “fully automated driving.” With these vehicles, the driver is able to take their mind off of the task of driving in most situations. It is even possible for the driver to sleep or do other work in a different part of the vehicle. This is because these vehicles are able to look after their own safety. They can also complete the journey and park themselves. However, traffic jams and tight-spaced areas require a human driver.
Level 5 Automation
Level 5 is when we finally hit full automation. The steering wheel is actually optional for these vehicles. So, it does not require human intervention for any aspect of the driving process.
Where is Automation Currently?
The future of trucking probably doesn’t seem as far away today, with many reports of self-driving trucks in the news. However, many of these trucks are in very controlled situations of automation. Demonstrations of level 5 automation are extremely rare. Most of the technologies are focused on level 2 (partial) or level 3 (conditional) automation. Level 4 is likely where the future of truck driving jobs will be affected since level 3 still requires human intervention. At level 3, the driver still has access to steering, braking, accelerating, and shifting gears. While level 3 automation makes the job easier, the driver still has to be ready at all times to take over driving if needed.
Truck Drivers Do More Than Drive
Even if autonomous trucks could take care of all the driving – which is a big assumption – truck drivers do much more than drive. Those other tasks that they perform make the future of trucking a little more complicated. For example, they check vehicles, secure cargo, maintain logs, and even provide customer service. Most of these jobs are not anywhere close to being automated. There is no one testing technology to automate unloading or loading trucks. There is equipment for this task, but it only reduces the burden on the drivers. It does not do it for them.
Customer service is an aspect that could be replaced by technology as it has been in other industries. But until then, truck drivers are responsible for the on-the-ground customer service. There are other things like invoices and other paperwork that have already been automated. Still, those tasks never took up a lot of time for the drivers anyway. So, completely automating them wouldn’t make much of an impact on their labor.
Finally, some tasks truck drivers perform may be much closer to automation. These include things like checking for unbalanced loads, low tires, and other problems that can be detected by sensors. However, that’s all they can do – sense the problem. Fixing the problem is still up to the driver.
So, When Will Autonomous Trucks Take Over?
It is hard to know when exactly autonomous trucks will take over. There are several companies working on level 4 and higher automation right now. But when that will be fully adopted is still up for debate.
TuSimple is a self-driving truck company that plans for completely driverless demonstrations this year. Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration Truck has gotten approval for autonomous driving in Nevada. Plus.ai expects the trucking industry will have the full ability to adopt automated trucks by 2024. Still, most applications are only in the test phase.
In addition, regulations will be an issue. Certain cities, states, and countries will likely not allow autonomous vehicles for any number of reasons. In the US alone, there is a patchwork of different regulations in place, with 37 states and the District of Columbia enacting some legislation or executive orders regarding autonomous vehicles. 8 states currently only authorize testing and 11 states plus D.C. have authorized full deployment. The future of trucking will depend on when these advanced technologies are widely available and whether cities, states, and countries allow for autonomous truck driving.