For the AV industry, the drive to bring autonomous vehicles to the real world has been a long journey marked by myriad twists and turns. Now autonomous vehicle developers are pursuing a more direct route toward their goal—not with cars navigating city streets, but instead with trucks cruising long distances on highways. In the quest to put AVs on the road quickly and safely, highways promise a straight shot to success, and autonomous trucks are pulling into the lead.
Trucking drives the economy
Given the huge impact the trucking industry has on our economy, this strategy makes sense. Most industries depend on trucking, including manufacturing, construction, retailing and restaurants. And of course, the remarkable boom in e-commerce couldn’t happen without trucks delivering online purchases. According to an American Trucking Associations report, in 2019 trucks carried more than 70 percent of total tonnage shipped in the U.S. Today, due to pandemic-related supply chain disruptions (especially to cargo ships and ports), the demand for trucking is greater than ever.
Putting autonomous trucks to the test
TuSimple started testing a fleet of 40 self-driving semi-trucks on Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona highways in 2020. TuSimple is testing its Level 4 technology, developed specifically for trucks, with partners Navistar and UPS, among others.
“Safety drivers” are always on board during these “supervised autonomy” tests. Trucks are delivered to the starting point (“first mile”) and picked up at the end (“last mile”). The “middle mile” along the highway is easier for AVs to navigate than back roads and urban streets. One TuSimple truck drove 951 miles from Arizona to Oklahoma in 14 hours—10 hours faster than any human driver could.
AV safety depends on cybersecurity
Since self-driving trucks never stop to eat or sleep, autonomous trucking may be faster, safer, and more economical than trucking with drivers—but it’s also more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Electrical and electronic systems are increasingly digitized, making vehicles easier targets. With no drivers at the wheel, AVs are at greater risk of losing control. The risk is deeper still when autonomous trucks hit the road. Cybersecurity is crucial.