Self-Driving Trucks Are on the Way

A startup is testing self-driving 18-wheelers in Nevada with hopes to propagate that technology to all 2.7 million trucks in the next two decades. Not unlike Google’s self-driving cars, which have logged more than 1.6 million miles in autonomous mode, self-driving trucks are equipped with an array of sensors and cameras to allow a computer on the truck to control all of the movement of the vehicle while on the highway. The United States has more than 220,000 miles of interstates and highways, and the majority of a truck driver’s time is spent outside of cities on those highways. So allowing a computer to take over control on those stretches of roads would free up truck drivers to get rest, work on log books, or perform other tasks. Truck drivers would still be required to take control when the truck nears a city or exits the highway.

Otto is a startup company that is currently outfitting trucks with the sensors and computers required to make them autonomous on highways, and they’re currently seeking 1,000 volunteer truck drivers to have their trucks equipped with the sensors at no charge. During the testing phase, truck drivers would be required to constantly monitor the truck and take over at a moment’s notice if the computer is deemed to be steering the truck into danger. Otto has already outfitted three trucks with the system and has begun testing in Nevada.

“It’s really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Anthony Levandowski, an engineer working on the project, says. Robot trucks, as he calls them, are less likely to speed or follow too close. They also don’t get tired. An estimated 10–20 percent of the more than 4,000 fatal crashes each year that involve trucks are attributed to driver fatigue. The choice society has to make isn’t do we want self-driving vehicles or vehicles with perfect drivers; that simply doesn’t exist. The choice is do we want self-driving vehicles or human-driven vehicles. Given how dangerous and far-from-perfect human drivers are, it’s a relatively easy choice to make.

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