The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning continues to expand the capabilities of our technologies, including the potential for cars and trucks to drive themselves.
I had the opportunity to experience the current state of autonomous truck technology during the Manifest conference in Nevada. Plus (formerly Plus.ai) a developer of advanced self-driving technologies, invited me to hitch a ride with them on a Las Vegas highway.
For the demo, the company installed its PlusDrive system on a Peterbilt truck pulling a half-loaded trailer. PlusDrive is a commercial product that requires a driver but utilizes “Level 4” driverless truck technology, as defined by SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). This scale, which is also used by the U.S. Department of Transportation, classifies the various levels of driving automation, ranging from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous). Level 4 means the truck can pretty much drive itself, but a human must be present to take over the controls if needed.
According to Phil Koopman, associate professor in Carnegie Mellow University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, today’s autonomous vehicle technology is not yet “road-ready,” in the sense of being cleared to operate without a driver on board. Dr. Koopman explains the holdup lies in the “last 2%,” meaning the rare and unpredictable situations that an autonomous system has not yet encountered and, thus, would not know how to handle.
My driver, Michael Crystal, held the wheel at all times. I sat in the cab’s passenger seat. Though a driver was present, the truck drove itself on the highway without intervention. It gauged its distance from the cars around it and easily merged into the flow of traffic, and comfortably navigated lane changes. The system maintained, but did not exceed, the speed limit; used sensors to stay in its lane and keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of us; and braked as needed.
While it will be some time before trucks can operate on a fully autonomous basis, the type of assistive tech I experienced is commercially available today and offers benefits in the form of fuel savings, safety, and comfort. Driving up to 10 hours a day is both mentally and physically taxing. These new technologies, which allow the driver to concentrate more on the road and less on the controls, can ease the stress and fatigue, while providing a safer overall experience.
As we’ve seen in warehouses, workers enjoy environments where they can engage with technology, especially if that technology makes their jobs easier. At a time when over-the-road truck drivers are in short supply, deploying more vehicles with automated assist technologies might be a way to attract, engage, and help retain those hard-to-find operators.