While self-driving cars aren’t ready to hit the roadways, fully autonomous trucks are right around the corner.
Walmart announced this month it will use autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas starting in 2021. The giant retailer has been working for 18 months with a company called Gatik on the pilot. Next year, the two companies plan on taking their partnership to the next level by removing the safety driver from their autonomous trucks.
Gatik installed sensors and software on multi-temperature box trucks to enable autonomous driving. Since 2019, those trucks have been operating on a two-mile stretch between a warehouse and a nearby market in Bentonville, Arkansas. Since then, the vehicles have put 70,000 miles in autonomous mode with a safety driver. Next year, the routes will be longer than the Arkansas operation — 20-miles between New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana.
Gatik isn’t the only company which Walmart has contracted with. It’s also working with Ford and Waymo, among others, in a search for the best fit for the company’s massive delivery operations.
Autonomous Trucks Promise Greater Efficiency, Safety
Autonomous truck promises to bring greater efficiency and safety to truck. It would allow companies to move more freight with the same number or even fewer drivers. Autonomous trucks could more easily travel during off-peak hours, helping to reduce traffic congestion. They don’t need to take breaks like human truckers do.
They could also bring big benefits in safety. Every year, trucks are involved in hundreds of thousands of crashes, resulting in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. It is anticipated that autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of accidents.
Drawbacks Include the Technology Itself and Legal Issues
One drawback is concerns related to job security. Truckers are worried that as the technology matures, they may be replaced by computers. Some analysts think the increased efficiency of truck will increase demand and require more professional drivers, especially during the start and end of complex truck runs.
Other drawbacks include the technology itself and the legal issues around insurance and legal liability for accidents. It’s unclear how long that would take. If an autonomous truck causes an accident, who is legally responsible? If an autonomous truck kills someone, who can be held accountable?
In a CBS “60 Minutes” segment in August, John Werthheim, reporting on the issue, said, “You’re going to be hearing a lot less honking in the future. And with good reason – the absence of an actual driver in the cab. We may talk about the self-driving car, but autonomous truck is not an if, it’s a when. And the when is coming sooner than you might expect.”
Wertheim continued, “We wanted to ask Elaine Chao, secretary of the Department of Transportation, about regulating this emerging sector. She declined an interview, but provided us with a statement which reads in part: “The Department needs to prepare for the transportation systems of the future by engaging with new technologies to address… safety… without hampering innovation.”