I have discussed driverless trucks before, but the timeline keeps speeding up.

Self-driving trucks before the end of this decade used to seem like a remote possibility. It now seems very likely, if not a given. Moreover, driverless truck convoys will be safer and more fuel efficient than human-driven trucks.

The technology, developed by Peloton Tech, uses radar and a wireless link so that the following trucks travel at the same speed, braking simultaneously for safety, and doing so on an automated system that doesn’t have the delays of human reaction time. In addition, the drivers of both vehicles also have a video display, expanding both drivers’ vision and reducing blind spots,” reports Popular Science in Robot Truck Convoy Tested In Nevada

Trucks Before Cars

Tech Hive reports The First Driverless Cars Will Actually be a Bunch of Trucks.

The future of driverless driving is all about trucks. So forget about that sensor-equipped Volkswagen Passat, and get ready for a 40-ton Peterbuilt 18-wheeler.

In the wake of new U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines for automated-vehicle testing, experts such as Ümit Özguner, a professor with Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research, are predicting that the first wave of operational autonomous vehicles will be devoted to long-haul deliveries. This is about moving cargo, not people.

“The trucking industry is very interested in going from single trucks to convoys of trucks. One human driver with perhaps three other trucks behind it,” Özguner told TechHive. “Those three wouldn’t necessarily have a driver in them. Eventually you could imagine removing the first driver too.”

[above]: A Japanese government research program is now testing driverless truck convoys that are designed to improve fuel economy.

In late May, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened the door for road-testing self-driving trucks by publishing policies for the three states that currently allow driverless vehicles: California, Nevada, and Florida. These guidelines open the door for driverless tests of all kinds. Overseas, meanwhile, experiments with driverless truck convoys—also known as “platoons”—have been under way for years.

“[Long-haul trucking] is the most realistic starting point for the commercial adoption of the technology. The long-haul vehicles have the most to gain, both in terms of safety and economic benefits,” says Mike Baker, the chief engineer at Ricardo UK Ltd, the lead firm of SARTRE. “The fuel savings witnessed by trucks in a platoon has a significant impact on the operating profits of the operator, not to mention the environmental impact of reduced CO2 and emissions.”

In the future, cars will be driving themselves through all sorts of environments, “but that’s quite a ways off,” says Dan Flores, General Motors’ advanced-technology spokesperson. “We’re [developing semiautonomous technologies] only with highways in mind because you have the ability to stay in one lane for a long period of time. There’s a lot more predictability there.”

In the coming years, car manufacturers will continue to introduce incremental, semiautomated technologies designed for situations that don’t require interacting with too many other drivers (examples already include automated parallel-parking systems and cruise control). Flores told TechHive that before the end of the decade, GM hopes to release a technology called Super Cruise that will marry adaptive cruise and lane controls, and will allow any vehicle to safely navigate itself over long stretches of highway.

Millions of Trucking Jobs Will Vanish

Supply Chain also says Trucks Will Drive Themselves Before Cars Do.

Driverless truck experiments are already underway in Japan and Europe, and now testing of semi-autonomous trucks has begun in Nevada. Here are the reasons why they’re destined to succeed — and why you’ll probably pass a driverless semi before you ever see a self-driving car.

Computers Are Cheaper and More Flexible Than Humans

The most immediate reason why driverless technology will doom truckers is the same reason it’ll be the end for cab drivers: the cost of a machine operating a vehicle will be dramatically cheaper than the cost of a human.

One of the things that drive up the cost of drivers is the simple fact that long-haul trucking is a much more unpleasant lifestyle than driving a cab. Many drivers spend five or six days a week on the road, which is why trucking has such an extraordinarily high turnover rate (about 98 percent annually) and why the industry constantly struggles to find enough drivers, even when unemployment is high.

Obviously, machines won’t care about these lifestyle difficulties. In fact, the Australian mining company Rio Tinto has already begun implementing autonomous trucks at its remote iron ore mines, partly because it’s so expensive to get drivers to come live in those places.

Driverless Technology Will Be Ready For Highways First

Engineering a vehicle that can drive at a constant speed on a predictable highway is a much simpler problem than designing one that can drive on city streets, which are filled with traffic lights, pedestrians, and other sudden obstacles.

Between 20 and 40 percent of the cost of shipping something by truck goes to fuel. A large amount of this fuel is simply burned as the engine fights air resistance, because trailers are so boxy and unaerodynamic. One way of cutting down on it is driving trucks in tight packs, so one can draft behind another.

Of course, it’s not safe for human drivers to draft off each other in this way, because it doesn’t allow for enough reaction time if the truck in front stops suddenly. But computers can do it, and recent tests in Nevada showed just how much fuel they can save.

The experiments by Peloton, a company that’s developing truck caravan technology in partnership with the Department of Transportation, showed that while traveling at 65 miles per hour 36 feet apart, two trucks packed together saved seven percent on fuel. This was the average for just two trucks (the lead saved 4.5 percent, and the rear saved 10 percent), so it should increase as trains get longer.

What Obstacles Need To Be Overcome For Driverless Trucks?

The factors that block a broad rollout of self-driving trucks fall mainly into two categories.

One is safety. People are understandably concerned about the idea of computers driving cars around on the roads, and those worries are amplified for tractor-trailers that can weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded.

But experts actually predict that automated systems will make trucking safer, by eliminating distracted driving and human error. And Google’s driverless cars, at least, have now gone more than 700,000 miles without an accident.

The other problem is legal. Right now, just a few states (including California, Nevada, and Florida) have laws on the books regarding driverless cars, and their legal status as a whole is murky. For driverless trucking on Interstates to be practical, all states would need to explicitly allow these vehicles on public roads.

Advocates are hopeful that national legislation will solve this problem. It’s all very uncertain, but in 2012, Google’s Sergey Brin predicted the Department of Transportation would begin regulating autonomous vehicles nationally as early as 2017.

Last Mile

I first wrote about driverless trucks on August 5, 2013, in Message to 5.7 Million Truck Drivers “No Drivers Needed” Your Job is About to Vanish.

On May 25, 2014 I discussed “last mile” and objections by truck drivers in denial about what is going to happen.

Let’s assume someone has to load the truck. Let’s also assume an actual skilled driver has to dock the truck and make the final delivery (arguably a bad assumption).

Yet, even if those assumptions are true, nothing stops a trucking company from having distribution facilities right off an interstate near major cities, where local drivers deliver the goods the last mile.

Why can’t all but the last few miles be driverless even if a skilled driver is needed some step of the way for safety reasons?

Technology marches on at a breathtaking pace. We might actually see commercial driverless vehicles on the roads within a few years.

Driverless trucks are looking more and more likely before the end of the decade. Millions of jobs will vanish when it happens.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock