Autonomous Truck Technology Set to Turn a Corner With First Solo Runs

Last year, spending on autonomous vehicle R&D topped $16 billion, and for those of us on the outside, there has been very little to show for it. That is set to change, however, with TuSimple’s announcement that its autonomous 18 wheeler will take to the roads in Arizona before the end of this year – and there will be no human on board as a backup.

An Important Step

The San Diego-based tech firm, which was the first company of its kind to list on Nasdaq earlier this year, has been road testing its driverless trucks extensively on public roads over the past six months. However, all the test miles covered so far have had a crew on board consisting of a driver ready to take control if necessary and a software technician. The driver-out pilot marks an important watershed and is something the company has been discussing with anticipation since July.

Cynics felt that TuSimple’s aim of reaching this stage before 2022 was more wishful thinking than anything else. However, CEO and President Cheng Lu have confirmed that everything is on schedule and the truck will start a series of driver-out trials over the coming weeks.

Why Driverless Trucks?

Car and truck technology is often grouped together, but as far as decision-making goes, the process is a much simpler one with commercial vehicles. There is none of the sentiment that is attached to car driving, where some might argue that they prefer to drive themselves simply because they enjoy driving. In the transport industry, there is no room for sentimentality, and operational decisions come down to efficiency and cost. This means that as soon as going driverless is demonstrably beneficial to the bottom line, businesses will start adopting the technology in their droves. Having said that, the benefits go beyond the purely pecuniary.

Any commercial truck accident attorney can tell you a dozen horror stories about what can happen as a result of natural human traits such as tiredness, impatience, or a momentary lapse of attention. Around 5,000 people lose their lives every year on America’s roads in accidents that involve trucks, and more than 90 percent of accidents are a result of human error. Driverless trucks never waver in their concentration, they don’t break speed limits and they can drive all day and all night without so much as a yawn. In short, autonomous trucks are safer than those being controlled by fallible humans.

The First Trials

TuSimple’s driver-out pilot program will see the truck navigating an 80-mile route between Phoenix and Tucson. Cheng Lu commented that it will give the public the chance to witness the fruits of all those years and dollars devoted to research. He said the technology will have to cope with both known and unknown factors, the latter of which might include adverse weather, unexpected construction work, and the most unpredictable factor of all – the humans with which the truck will be sharing the road.

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