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Robot On Board: The future of driverless fleets

Forget driver-free cars, the future of driverless vehicles is in trucking. Automated-vehicle experts predict that the first wave of operational autonomous vehicles will be of the long-haul variety.

Why is the trucking and logistics industry extremely interested in driverless technology? There’s money to make. Or more accurately, there are savings in it. First up: fuel savings. Overseas, the focus is on driverless truck convoys called “platoons”. These convoys work together to create the same drafting physics used by cyclists and race cars to reduce fuel/energy consumption.

Another benefit to the bottom line is employment-related savings. Salary, benefits, vacation pay, sick leave, accident claims, etc. would all be a thing of the past. Downtime would also be reduced-automated drivers don’t need sleep. Automated trucks would solve the driver shortage too.

While trucking companies can bank on the savings automated trucks provide, safety is not so red (stop danger) and green (go for it). When it comes to driver-free trucks, it’s more like yellow-proceed with caution. Testing has been ongoing overseas for years. Right now, trucks are using guidance systems to drive themselves while tech specialists monitor them in a control room miles away. While the trucks have enough brain power to decide whether or not to drive over or around obstacles, they cannot react to unpredictable situations (or humans), making them more ideal for straight forward highway hauls.

But what does this mean for the millions of truck drivers who are currently behind the wheel? Truck drivers could still be along for the ride, but in a backseat driver position. Right now, the lead truck in a platoon has a driver at the wheel or a human in the passenger seat. The truck drivers of today could also take on more of a customer service role, becoming brand ambassadors and sales people who accompany the goods.

Experts estimate that over the next two decades the trucking industry will make the move to driverless fleets. But a big question remains-when a kid sticks their arm out the window and pumps it up and down, will these robot roadies know to honk the horn?

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