If you have watched the Disney/Marvel movie Logan, you may have noticed the self-driving freight trucks cruising the highways alongside Hugh Jackman’s eponymous mutant character. That part of this near-future sci-fi depiction of America in 2029 may be just over the horizon. Kristen Lee of Jalopnik interviewed Nick Pugh, who designed the look of the trucks for the movie. She writes:
The ensuing autonomous truck was just a container with two little robot bottom parts that had wheels with motors on them. They could link up and trail 20 containers at a time or just tow one.
The scene with the autonomous trucks is short, but it’s poignant—giving us a taste of the highly efficient future in store for American roads. But man, does it look lonely.
Self-driving trucks are easy to imagine because trucks have a number of problems which automation can solve. The greatest is driver fatigue. In 2015 (the most recent year with available data) 4,050 large trucks were involved in fatal accidents. Not all of these accidents involved driver fatigue, but many did, and driverless technology could eliminate that problem.
Another problem that trucks have is inefficiency. Part of the solution to fatigue has been to limit the amount of time each driver may operate a truck in any one stretch. That slows down the trip across the country by forcing a driver to rest more. Or it increases the price by requiring more drivers to take turns. These measures cost trucking companies, and ultimately consumers, more money. Driverless trucks could potentially drive non-stop from coast to coast.
Alphabet (formerly Google) is reportedly working on self-driving freight trucks at its Waymo subsidiary. Buzzfeed reports:
Google began working on self-driving cars in 2009. It spun out its self-driving car program into a new company called Waymo in 2016, and earlier this year it announced it had been developing its own autonomous driving hardware. Earlier this year, the company launched a pilot program in Phoenix for people to take rides in their cars. The company had not previously announced trucking efforts.
Uber is also working on autonomous trucking. Last year, the ride-hail juggernaut purchased an automated trucking startup called Otto, whose founder Anthony Levandowski – a former Google employee – is now at the center of a lawsuit from Waymo. Waymo sued Uber in February, alleging Levandowski stole the company’s self-driving trade secrets before decamping to start Otto and join Uber. Waymo’s lawsuit alleges that Uber has benefitted from that information, and its lawyers have argued Otto was simply a ruse created so Uber would acquire it and obtain Waymo’s secrets.
Trucking has been predicted to be one of the major applications of self-driving technology. Uber performed its first self-driving trucking delivery in October 2016: a 120-mile beer haul for Anheuser-Busch. The company performed that delivery after completing five consecutive tests along its Colorado route, BuzzFeed News reported in March, with state patrol troopers surrounding the vehicle in motorcade fashion.
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