Who’s Behind the Wheel?

Daimler Future TruckAutonomous vehicles are nothing new—self-driving cars are legal in several states in the U.S., including California, Florida, and Michigan, with Google, Nissan, Audi and Chinese vehicle manufacturer FAW are all developing prototypes. With a smaller audience and larger machinery to contend with, however, autonomous trucks aren’t as widely discussed—but the topic is gaining attention.

In July 2014, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its Future Truck 2025. A fully-autonomous freight truck capable of speeds of up to 53 MPH, the truck is able to drive itself in any kind of weather. Despite being held on a closed course, current laws required that the July Future Truck 2025 demonstration include the presence of a driver, though he wasn’t using any of the controls.

In mines in Australia, another kind of truck has been employed since December 2008. Called the Autonomous Hauling System, the British-Australian metals and mining company Rio Tinto Iron Ore has been utilizing a series of robotic trucks that load, haul, and dump ore and waste rock at open pit mines. Massive in size—210-metric-tons, 27 feet wide and 51 feet long—these robot dump trucks can carry 320 metric tons, and are controlled from company headquarters 930 miles away.

Mercedes Future TruckWhile developments of this type may seem disconcerting to drivers of traditional trucks, experts believe the advancements will create a different kind of work profile for them. And with 2025 still more than 10 years away, there are still myriad kinks to work out of the system, from liability issues to navigation system flaws.

Primary concerns include cost and safety. Initially, autonomous trucks will run on dedicated roads, or via embedded roadside beacons—both of which will be expensive to institute on the country’s already-crumbling transportation infrastructure. And, while these machines may possibly become safer on the road than their human counterparts, proving this to governments and the public may be a long time coming.

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