Autonomous Vehicles – They Are Already Here!

Back in the winter we took a look at how an autonomous vehicle works  (click here to read that post).  Since that time there have been more entrants into the field, along with numerous test vehicles.  Let’s take a look at where the technology is and where it is going.

Autonomy is a Progression not Just an End State

First we need to address a popular myth – autonomous vehicles are not just self-driving!  The reality is we have had trucks with a degree of autonomy for years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists five levels of autonomous vehicles:

Level # Level Description
0 No automation The driver is in full control of braking, steering, throttle and power at all times.
1 Function-Specific Automation One or more specific control functions, such as electronic stability control or vehicle-assisted braking, operates automatically.
2 Combined-Function Automation At least two primary control operations, designed to in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions, operate autonomously.  These combined functions might include adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.
3 Limited Self-Driving Automation Vehicles at this level enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions.  The vehicle monitors changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control.  The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.
4 Full Self-Driving Automation The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.  Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip.  This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.


Using the NHTSA’s criteria, very few trucks on the road today do not meet at least level 1 (and many newer ones meet level 2) on the autonomy scale.  Have ABS?  Then the vehicle has some degree of autonomy!  Joe Q Public hears the term autonomous trucks and his/her mind goes right to the extreme end of the scale, and gets scared of the idea of 80,000 lbs running down the Interstate with no driver.  It’s no wonder that there is resistance to the idea.

Another myth is that these vehicles are likely to eliminate driving jobs in the near future.  In December 2016, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report stating that between 1.34 and 1.7 million driving jobs are threatened by this technology. That figure represents almost 50% of all heavy duty trucking jobs in the United States.  This is a huge overstatement of where the technology currently stands.   It is also at odds with the vision of some of the OEMs, Daimler Trucks in particular.  Daimler  believes that Level 2 and Level 3 autonomous vehicle technology is best suited for on-highway applications.  This means that the truck will be able to drive itself under certain conditions, but a qualified driver is still required under other circumstances (for instance, while doing final deliveries or in a snow storm or other weather-related event).  By reducing the workload on the driver, we may be able to recruit either newer drivers into the industry or possibly retain some of our older, more experienced drivers better than we do today.  Daimler’s vision sees the driver as more of a captain or supervisor role – watching and overseeing what is going on but at the same time ready to roll up their sleeves and take over when necessary.

While the current administration is looking at ways to reduce the regulatory burden on our industry, the legal community will likely offset any regulatory ‘wins’, resulting in a likely gradual easing into (more) autonomous vehicles.  Second, the currently commercialized lidar and radar navigation systems still have shortcomings under certain conditions (such as having difficulty seeing van trailers that are painted white in bright sunshine or if heavy rain or snow is present).  The last thing out industry needs is another high profile accident – especially one caused by a ‘driverless’ vehicle.  Such an incident could derail the progression toward further autonomous systems, or at very least bring on another round of onerous regulations.   There is some uncertainty over how current regulations will impact the adoption of this technology.  How will HOS regulations apply – will the EOBR make an accounting for autonomous driving time?  Will operators of these vehicles still have the current 10 limit of driving or will self driving time be counted differently? Will these operators still need the 30 minute break after 8 hours on duty if the truck is in autonomous mode and they have the ability to do some limited moving around, getting and preparing food, etc.?  Further, what qualifications will the operator need?  Will they require a full CDL or will they be able to have a different class of license?  There’s still a lot to be hammered out.  That doesn’t mean that these are show stoppers – there are too many potential advantages of driver supervised autonomous vehicles.

Each model year progresses us further and further along the pectrum.  Will we ever have level 4 as a common option?  Maybe not in the short or medium term, and maybe not in the way people think of them now.  However, level 3 is within our grasp and it promises to be either a game changer, or at least a way to shake things up.

Next week we will examine some of the opportunities and threats that this technology could bring.