Autonomous Vehicles: A Reality at Our Doorstep

By Yves Provencher, PIT Group Director

During the period spreading from November 15 to December 11, 2015, two major conferences were held in America on automated trucks. Both Detroit (Autonomous Trucks 2015) and Dallas (North American Automated Trucking Conference 2015) brought together specialists, original equipment manufacturers (OEM), academics, legislators and, naturally, several fleet managers wishing to see what is coming our way.

But where are we at with this new technology? And what are automated trucks exactly?

Autonomous Vehicles: The Technology

In 2013, when PIT decided to focus on autonomous trucks at its Toronto conference, many asked us if we were on illegal drugs. So much has happened since then! In 2015, there is virtually not a single day where automated trucks are not discussed.

First, let’s address the vocabulary issue. You hear about “autonomous” trucks, “automated” trucks and “connected” trucks, but they are all somewhat different.

Autonomous truck: While it is over-used, this expression should be reserved to trucks that can fully operate without a driver. However, this concept is still far from becoming the reality.

Connected truck: A connected truck can exchange (upload and download) data with another truck (you also hear “vehicle to vehicle” or “V2V), an infrastructure (“V2I”) or anything else (“V2X”). Naturally, to be autonomous, a truck must be connected. In other words, an autonomous truck is a form of connected truck.

Automated truck: This category contains all the driving-assistance technologies. Adaptive cruise control, collision-avoidance braking or lane keep assist systems are all versions of autonomous trucks. Then come autopilot systems and, finally, when they are fully automated, trucks will be deemed autonomous.


What are the Differences?

Experts have agreed to create 5 automated truck levels, described in Figure 1 below (source: SAE International, 2014).

Figure 1Automated Truck Levels According to SAE International

At Level 1, drivers benefit from a basic driving assistance whereas at Level 5, there are no more drivers. Naturally, nothing is black and white. The Freightliner truck featured in the headlines last spring would fit roughly into Level 3.

What do Manufacturers Have in Store for Us?

Experts agree on the fact that Level 3 trucks should drive on our roads within the next 10 years. What about Level 5 trucks? We’re talking about at least 20 years, but who knows how fast technology and society will develop.

Judging by the efforts currently made in that field by manufacturers, we very well might be in for surprises. It wouldn’t be surprising if manufacturers wouldn’t tell the whole story and manage to come up with a driver-less autonomous truck sooner than they lead us to believe.

However, this doesn’t mean that driver-less trucks will be on our roads sooner. There is a big step between launching an autonomous truck prototype and operating a fleet on our roads. The technology will likely be ahead of our society, legislators and administrations of all kinds. Sadly, like in many other fields, the lowest common denominator is often law. Trucks can be technically viable, but if the legislation is not adapted, insurance companies are not involved and if technicians can’t repair them, they will remain pilot projects.

Every necessary effort must be made to make sure that all stakeholders are involved. In Europe, industrial clusters including manufacturers, governments, executives, sensor providers, etc. are already created and working together. What about us, on this side of the Atlantic? The ministers of Transportation and Highway Safety met last week for a special day focused on “Trucks of the future”, where loads and dimensions, special permits for non-compliant loads and self-steering axles issues were addressed, among others. Let’s just hope for a gear change!

We will surely discuss this again soon…