The First Legal Driverless Truck is on the Road: What is the Future of the Trucking Industry?

On May 5, Freightliner Trucks debuted the first road-legal driverless truck to hit North America. This new advancement has left many wondering where this will take the industry and what it means for both freight carriers and their drivers.

How does the driverless truck work?

Freightliner’s self-driving truck has been named “Inspiration”, perhaps due to the feelings it evokes from those looking forward in the trucking industry. The futuristic truck features a technology that works to keep the truck within lanes and at legal speeds with the use of cameras.

At this time, the truck is fitted with the technology to drive itself on highways, but is not completely self-sufficient. Licensed truck drivers are still needed to sit behind the wheel to takeover control for surface roads, exiting highways, or bad weather.

When a situation requires a human driver, the truck will sound a loud beep. Otherwise, the truck will stay in its lane and maintain a safe speed and distance from other vehicles on the road, according to Alex Davies, a magazine editor who was at the truck’s demonstration.  If the driver does not respond to the beep and take over, the truck will begin slowing down until it is at a complete stop.

Will this replace truck drivers?

Ground-breaking new technology always stirs up a little bit of fear for those who work in the affected industry, as it could potentially change or replace their job. However, Freightliner has eased some of this anxiety by mentioning that the self-driving truck still needs a driver to monitor it.

Some current truckers are not fazed by this new advancement.

“Well it's coming, like it or not. Cars, trucks, planes; there will always have to be someone behind the wheel monitoring the vehicle until they figure out how to get a level 4 fully self-driving vehicle,” said Jeffrey Buford, a driver from Riverside, California.

Other drivers feel the pitfalls of technology could prevent the extinction of the truck driver position.

“I once ran into a scenario where I-30 in Texas was closed for a wreck and police officers were physically directing traffic around the wreck two different ways depending on what vehicle you were driving,” said Steve Lapp, a driver from Jacksonville, Florida.  “Who could possibly determine how the police officer could communicate to a driverless vehicle how to do that?”

Is this the future of the trucking industry or just a fad?

The real question burning in everyone’s minds after the debut of this driverless truck is how this technological advancement will impact the trucking and shipping industry. Is this just another buzz topic to be shared on social media and brought up in passing at truck-stops, or is this really something to think of as an imminent reality?

Drivers who are skeptical, like Michael Smith, an owner-operator from Jacksonville, Florida, think there won’t be a positive outcome from the new line of self-driving trucks.

“I think a lot of smart people built a smart truck and one day there'll be a really smart wreck,” Smith said.

The Freightliner Inspiration truck is currently being tested on roads in Nevada, but the company says the truck won’t be widely commercially available for another decade or so. Regardless of opinions, the truck has been passed through legislation and deemed legally operational. The question remains how many other self-driving vehicles will be in the line-up for the race to autonomy.

“In my mind I see road trains miles long cruising across the prairies; dedicated lanes and nodal points across the country waiting for drivers for local delivery. I'm looking forward to it,” said Steve Singfield, an owner-operator. “Anything to keep me safer, more comfortable, relaxed instead of being weary and bodily worn out, is something to embrace rather than to just dismiss with derision.”