Driverless Truck Rolls Past Drivers on Freeway
Drivers on Colorado’s Interstate 25 were largely unaware that the Otto-Budweiser semi-truck next to them had no one in the driver’s seat, on October 20, 2016. The truck was operated by autonomous driverless technology during a 120 mile maiden trip; a beer run from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
Does a fully loaded, driverless tractor-trailers pose a threat to the motoring public?
The answer to that question is “Yes” and “No.” Autonomous driving technology may seem dangerous until you consider the fact that 400,000 trucks with human drivers crash each year killing about 4,000 people and maiming many, many more. So, yes, until the technology is perfected, there may be some risk on the road. However, the long-term response to the safety question is “No,” because driverless trucks are predicted to improve safety. If the technology will decrease the number of catastrophic truck crashes, it will be a welcomed change.
James Sembrot, a logistics expert at Anheuser-Busch, was quoted in Wired saying, “We think that self-driving technologies can improve safety, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies of our shipments.” He is not alone in this belief. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), ten states have passed legislation or issued executive orders regarding the use of autonomous technology on the roadways. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) has committed nearly $4 billion toward development and adoption of safe vehicle automation.
The technology used in the Budweiser truck test was developed by Otto (owned by Uber) to meet the “highly automated” driving standard created by the SAE Association in 2014. The truck underwent a $30,000 modification that included the addition of three Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) laser units, a back bumper radar, and a sophisticated windshield camera to plot, map, and monitor driving conditions for autonomous operation. A human driver was onboard for testing purposes, in-city maneuvering, and emergencies. From all accounts the autonomous beer truck operated flawlessly.
However, there are still many questions about how the technology works and what it means to other drivers—particularly in the case of unexpected road conditions or inclement weather. There is also a question of what happens to other drivers who may be seriously injured or killed if the technology fails.
President Obama shared his thoughts in a separate Wired interview, regarding the positive safety implications of automated technology and the potential for public concern about driverless trucks sharing the road with people. He emphasized the importance of managing how human “values” get embedded in the artificial intelligence code. Humans make choices when driving and, when faced with the risk of a crash, they consider the options, calculate the odds, and make a decision on what action to take for the best outcome. President Obama indicated that getting public buy-in on driverless trucks would require a “consensus” on the criteria used to make those determinations.
Until autonomous truck driving systems like Otto are fully tested, they will be in limited use on the U.S. roadways. Right now, Otto has six trucks operating on San Francisco highways and other companies such as Daimler and Volvo are still testing autonomous trucks. The trucking industry, which has a driver shortage, is eager to implement the systems and highway safety groups are eager to reduce the number of fatal and catastrophic crashes on our roadways.