The promise of a future with autonomous trucks took another step forward as the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles cleared Daimler Trucks North America to operate the first licensed autonomous commercial truck on a public highway. Those in favor of autonomous vehicles claim their use will result in fewer collisions and improved fuel mileage. However, many critics raise questions about their impact on driver and pedestrian safety.
Let’s be clear: Daimler’s autonomous truck isn’t targeting the elimination of the truck driver. It’s better to think of this technology as enhanced cruise control, utilizing a camera that can recognize pavement markings and that can detect other vehicles up to 250 meters ahead. The autonomous operating system performs critical functions such as steering, braking, speed control, collision avoidance, and lane stability. Theoretically, a truck driver can then perform other tasks while maintaining legal speeds as the operating system ensures safe distances from other vehicles, drives in an optimal lane, and accelerates or decelerates as highway traffic dictates. The vehicle’s system can then return control to the driver for maneuvers such as driving on local roads, docking for deliveries, detours, and stop-and-go traffic.
The goal is to reduce human error, to improve driver safety, and minimize collisions. Many think this is a likely path to future safety improvements, but there are important issues to be resolved, some of which pertain to driver training and insurance liability. Some of these issues have been vetted in countries such as Australia (driverless mining trucks), and the Netherlands (five-year plan to implement autonomous vehicles). A research group in The Netherlands plans to test autonomous convoy trucks. In this scenario, the lead truck would include a human driver and the rest of the convoy would utilize autonomous driving systems.
More autonomous vehicles of all types are in planning, prototype, and testing stages. All over the world, governments are struggling to balance technological advances with public safety concerns. This requires rigorous testing and a slow and phased implementation process.
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