The Promise of Autonomous Trucks

Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles has cleared  Daimler Trucks North America to operate the first licensed autonomous commercial truck on a U.S. public highway. Heralding a new era of reduced accidents and lowered fuel consumption, Daimler’s introduction of the Freightliner “Inspiration Truck” raises a host of questions that drivers, fleet managers, and insurers will some day have to confront, though it’s hard to gauge how soon.

Daimler has no intent to eliminate the driver in its Inspiration Truck. With a camera that can recognize pavement markings 100 meters down the road and radar that can spot other vehicles 250 meters ahead, it has a “Level 3” autonomous operating system that performs key functions such as steering, braking, speed control, collision avoidance and lane stability. While the driver works on other tasks – such as scheduling or routing – the truck maintains legal speed and a safe distance from other vehicles, stays in the optimal lane, and accelerates or slows as traffic requires. The truck recognizes situations in which control needs to be handed back to the driver, such as exiting the highway, driving on local roads, making turns, and docking to make deliveries.

If human error can be reduced computerized systems in autonomous trucks and cars, we could see a sharp reduction in accident claims. But myriad issues must be sorted out to shift property, casualty and computer liability, and that will require close coordination among federal, state and local governments, manufacturers, parts suppliers, and insurance companies.

Such countries as Australia, where driverless trucks are being used in mining, and the Netherlands, which has announced a five-year plan for implementing autonomous vehicles, could be interesting bellwethers. In the Netherlands, a research consortium plans to test autonomous trucks that drive in convoys. Only the lead truck would have a human driver and the trucks – telling each other when to speed up or slow down — would draft behind one another to reduce air resistance and save fuel.

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