When will autonomous cars actually appear on the roads? The answer depends on your perspective. Companies like Alphabet’s Waymo are already running hundreds of autonomous cars on American roads. These cars can navigate city streets just as well as highways and long-winding country roads. However, they must always have an alert safety driver sitting inside them as there could be edge cases, special conditions where the cars have trouble: heavy rain and snowfall, badly marked construction sites or road blockages. Additionally, these advanced autonomy systems require the usage of a LIDAR, a distance-measuring laser. The price of these devices is forecasted to decrease, but today’s LIDARs still cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The scale to rate the autonomous driving capability of a car ranges from Level 0 up to Level 5. A Level 4 car is “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip”. There has been much debate in the self-driving car community whether Waymo’s vehicles can already be considered as a Level 4 vehicle. The general consensus is that it is close, but not there yet.
The difficult thing about autonomous driving research is that it is hard to predict how long it will take to solve the remaining problems before they have been solved. Some experts predict that Level 4 autonomous cars will be on the road in as little as 5 years. Others think that 10 years are more realistic. And a few even believe that it will never actually happen. Surely, it also depends on our expectations towards the machine: Are we aiming for a perfect, zero-accident driving ability? Or are we ready to go to market as soon as the computer drives just slightly better than a human?
Why trucks will be autonomous first
When it comes to the technology, the challenge of building an autonomous truck is roughly the same as building an autonomous car. If you can build a car that is able to drive highways without supervision, you will soon be able to build a truck that does the same.
The value proposition, however, is very different. For a consumer car, there is some value in automated highway driving, no doubt. On the other hand, the average commuter probably spends a bigger share of his driving time on country or city roads. For him, the real breakthrough will be when he can just slip into his car and let it drive all the way from origin to destination. A big rig, however, is mostly running down highways. And its commercial value is defined by one thing only: How much freight it can move, how far and how quickly.
As humans need to sleep, a truck requires two drivers to be operating over long distance without interruption. Or, inversely, a truck with a single driver, who is resting a good chunk of the time. Here, autonomous highway driving can make all the difference. The driver can sleep while the truck is making distance. When the truck leaves the highway, a single, well-rested human driver is ready to take over. Thanks to a cut in stand-by time, the revenue grows and the increased profits outweigh the additional expenses to the autonomous driving system.
Second order effects
The elephant in the room, though, is the question how all of this will change our industry. Will the independent trucker be a thing of the past? Will smaller companies consolidate into bigger ones? How many jobs will be lost? In the United States, 1.6 million citizens are employed as truck drivers. When discussing the prospects of autonomous driving, we should not forget this enormous figure and the social challenge that the transition will bring.