Why Self Driving Semi Trucks Still Need Human Drivers

Many in the shipping industry believe that, due to the rise in automotive automation, self-driving semi trucks will be the next big innovation sometime in the near future. This has posed a relevant and important question: If self-driving trucks become the norm, will truckers lose their jobs? At this point, self-driving car technology is still in its infancy, so it is uncertain where the technology will go. However, many carriers have shown interest in self-driving fleets of semi trucks for a number of reasons, so it is understandable where this fear comes from. Luckily, human drivers will not be pushed out any time since most self-driving semi trucks will still need to be monitored by human drivers. 

How Do Self Driving Semi Trucks Work?

Self driving semi trucks are reliant on technology in order to run. Sensors like cameras, lasers, radars, or other mechanisms send data feedback into a computer that controls the motorized vehicle through a complex autopilot-like program. The truck uses this feedback in comparison to an internal map, after which the information to the truck’s actuators, which control acceleration, braking, and steering. This way, the truck will be able to slow down, speed up, and adjust to other drivers on a fully automated system. There are also systems in development to program entire fleets to run in tandem with each other, communicating with each other using a variety of telematics technologies. 

Benefits & Risks of Self Driving Semi Trucks

Companies like Tesla have already made their interest in self-driving semi trucks public. Many businesses are looking to appeal to the eco-conscious consumer, while others want to cut costs of shipping and carrying. Some believe that self driving semi trucks will speed up the availability of goods. If trucks have no drivers, they can travel through the night without breaks and reach destinations faster. Since trucks tend to follow fixed routes and spend more time on highways, some believe focusing on trucks will speed up the development of  self driving technology, rather than base research on unpredictable passenger vehicles

Many are reasonably skeptical about the push for self driving vehicles. The amount of power necessary to fuel these machines would have a poor impact on the environment if they ran on traditional gasoline. Because of this, most research is being done to transition trucks to electric motors that can go long distances with little charge. This method could greatly reduce the amount of pollution, with some striving to the ambitious goal of a zero emission truck

One of the biggest questions is safety. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Marshall Herman, over 90% of crashes are caused by driver error so some believe self-driving trucks would reduce the number of roadside accidents. Since there is no driver present to risk drowsy or reckless driving, there is a chance numbers would go down. These trucks could also travel at off-peak times when most drivers are asleep, and avoid the riskiest obstacles on the road. 

On the other hand, lack of a driver means more of a risk in the case of a driving malfunction, which can put other drivers in extreme danger. There are even more questions brought up when ideas of insurance and legal liability for accidents come into play. Autonomous vehicles are twice as likely to crash compared to conventional cars, so more research is needed to guarantee complete safety.  Computer and system malfunctions are always possible, and increased technology raises security concerns of hackers and other cybercriminals. 

Why are Human Drivers Needed?

Human drivers will not be going anywhere, since the benefits of a fully autonomous vehicle are outweighed by the safety risks involved in their operation. Much testing still needs to be conducted before it is safe for automated vehicles to take on the challenge of other drivers. In the meantime, the industry takes smaller steps on the journey to automation.

The Society of Automotive Engineers determined in 2021 that the autonomy level of current automotive technology lies at Level 3 on their J3016 Levels of Driving Automation table. This means that in order to have these types of vehicles on the road, there must be a driver present with the truck at all times. It is still considered safer to have a trained professional in the vehicle, regardless of the presence of state-of-the-art sensor features.

Most tests of self driving semi trucks involve observing their operation under this “supervised autonomy”, meaning that while the truck is driving itself, there is still a driver who is capable of taking over the console in an emergency. The driver also monitors the equipment of the truck and makes sure everything is running smoothly.

Development and construction of autonomous trucks is very expensive, so even if these vehicles are found to be a success, not every manufacturer will replace their fleets right away, if at all. It’s unlikely drivers will lose their jobs, when it is more likely the demand will increase as truck drivers’ roles evolve to be more familiar with the technical aspects of these vehicles. Carriers will need people to construct the vehicles, repair them, monitor that the systems are working properly both in and out of the driver’s seat. With technological advancements comes the creation of new jobs, and so no matter what role future drivers may play, there will always be a necessary human touch in truck driving. 

Become the Future of Truck Driving with TDI 

Self driving semi-trucks are far in the future, but you can become a member of the shipping industry today. Truck Driver Institute is a national leader in truck driving education, and we pride ourselves in educating our students with the most up-to-date industry knowledge at a fair cost. Our streamlined three-week Class A CDL certification courses teach students everything they need to know about the rules and regulations of the road, and ensure that graduates are ready to step headfirst into the profession with confidence. Our focus from Day 1 is employment, and our job placement services work with you to find your ideal employer. On average, 80% of students are placed with a carrier before graduation, and our career services are available for any alumni. The future needs truck drivers, contact us for more information about how to earn your CDL. 

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