While most of the hype in the last year has been around autonomous cars, commercial trucks most likely will be the first to become autonomous.
I'm not just being biased when I say this, but I understand that all technological change, big or small, is driven by economics, and its adoption occurs where it makes economic sense.
Look at it this way. A lidar unit — which is a key sensor needed for autonomous driving — costs about $4,000. The best-selling pickup and SUV in the U.S. are the Ford F-150, which starts at around $35,000 for the crew cab version, and the Toyota RAV4, which starts at about $25,000.
The cost of adding a lidar unit would add at least 11 percent to the price of the F-150 and 16 percent to the price of the RAV4. How many consumers are going to pay that premium?
However, fleet managers will plug that extra expense onto the price of their new Class 8 tractors, which are valued at more than $125,000, and analyze their return on investment. When the payback period drops to a certain level, they will buy.
As volumes increase, the price for the sensors and related equipment and software will drop, and manufacturing economies of scale will decrease the cost of this technology, which then will penetrate the consumer market.
Fleets also have additional motivations for adopting autonomous technology. Ideally, autonomous trucks have the capability to make a positive impact on the truck driver shortage.
Right now the freight market is booming, but carriers are struggling to find enough drivers and, in fact, many loads sit waiting for available drivers to pick them up.
Attracting and retaining drivers is the biggest challenge for freight companies today. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates that the industry is about 51,000 drivers short now, and at this rate by 2026 it will be 170,000 drivers short. To make matters worse, the fleet driver turnover rate is approximately 90 percent.
As carriers fight for enough human drivers to keep trucks moving, the evolution of automation has many asking, "How much longer will a human driver be necessary?"
This has prompted several truck OEMs and other high-tech companies to begin developing autonomous trucks.
Last September, Starsky Robotics Inc. completed the longest end-to-end autonomous trip on record, hauling Hurricane Irma recovery aid 68 miles through Florida with a person in the cab but without driver intervention.
And earlier this year, this same company completed a seven-mile drive in Florida without a person in the cab. The truck's human driver was stationed about 100 miles away and monitored the tractor through a network of cameras and sensors.
Starsky Robotics' platform involves having a human remotely drive the truck only on and off the highway and then allows the vehicle to operate autonomously at highway speeds. Once the truck is in full autonomous mode, the remote driver can then pay attention to several other trucks.
While Starsky Robotics is a relatively small company, the big truck OEMs are not standing idly by. This year Daimler Trucks announced it is creating an Automated Truck Research Center to develop and test autonomous truck technologies including platooning.
It also announced plans to invest $588 million in 2018-19 to e-mobility, connectivity and automated commercial vehicle technology.
It will draw upon its R&D development engineering resources in Portland, Ore., Stuttgart, Germany, and Bangalore, India, and has laid out plans to focus on developing Level 4 technology, skipping Level 3 entirely in the interest of safety.
Peterbilt Motors Co. introduced its Model 579 in 2015, which was the next generation of Level 3 automation. This truck showcased advanced cruise control that accelerates and decelerates automatically to maintain safe following distances and has the ability to use cameras to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, if necessary.