Limit Conditions for Autonomous Trucks

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Limit Conditions for Autonomous Trucks

Semi Truck on a Highway

A few companies are working on developing autonomous long-haul trucks for freeways. Articles here, here, and here mention the following as some of the driving (pun intended) factors for this technology:

  • A driver shortage exists. Old drivers are retiring faster than new ones are joining.
  • Trucks can stay on the road nearly 24 hours a day.
  • The number of accidents due to sleepy and tired drivers will be reduced.
  • Freight shipping costs will go down.

These articles focus on the end results – what is gained once the technology is deployed. I believe the big benefit of developing autonomous long-haul trucks is that freeways provide a well-defined limited condition. In other words, it is a subset of all the variables of urban and rural traffic with their associated varieties of circumstances and conditions. Here is how I could see it playing out:

Freeway Only

A driver manually drives the truck onto the freeway, gets it up to speed, and turns on the autopilot. The driver relaxes for a few hours. When the truck needs to get off the freeway, the driver turns off autopilot and manually controls the truck to exit the freeway and to drive around any other streets.

This is a fairly restrictive limitation. Yet it addresses a significant and boring time for the driver. The driver will likely arrive more refreshed and shipping costs will go down.

Freeway and Truck Stops

Limitations could be relaxed to allow trucks to be on autopilot from truck stop to truck stop. This would be for truck stops near freeway exits. Drivers would only be needed to manually drive the trucks through the urban and rural streets to and from truck stops.

Freeway and Limited Routes

Most long-haul trucks, when off of the freeway, use just a small subset of roads and streets when traveling from or to locations, like warehouses and loading docks. They don’t need to travel through residential areas and most commercial areas. Limitations could be relaxed to include selected off-freeway routes.

This gradually-expanding approach to technology development is typical in embedded systems. Autonomous car development is doing that by adding bits and pieces of driver-assist technology. When ready to implement full autonomous truck driving, a freeway-only condition is an excellent place to start. And it would be easy to program the truck so that it must be on a freeway before full-autonomy autopilot can be enabled, thus preventing drivers from using it where they shouldn’t.

Gary Stringham is an expert witness and consultant in embedded systems. He can be contacted at 208-939-6984.

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