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November 11, 2015

Now Come Autonomous Trucks

Summary:

While the focus has been on cars, an autonomous truck is now licensed to operate on U.S. roads -- another way to reduce accidents.

Photo Courtesy of Graham Richardson

In 2012, nearly 40,000 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 90% of those fatalities were caused by driver error.

Imagine an advanced autonomous system that could avoid those deadly motor vehicle accidents. Even a system that works only on the highway — where the technology has already been developed and where trucks spend the majority of their time — can make a significant difference.

A new report has analyzed the impact of driverless cars on the incidence of fatal traffic accidents and concluded that, by removing human emotions and errors from the equation, we could reduce deaths on the road by 90%. That’s almost 300,000 lives saved each decade in the U.S., and a saving of $190 billion each year in healthcare costs associated with accidents. If you expand this to global figures, driverless cars are set to save 10 million lives per decade.

There are now some trucks on the road that begin to fulfill that promise. Daimler Trucks North America’s “Inspiration” freightliner semi-truck this year became the first legally operated autonomous commercial vehicle operating on U.S. highways.

For now, the Inspiration is basically a limited take on the autonomous truck. The driverless system engages when the truck is on the highway and ramps up speed. It then maintains a safe distance from other vehicles and stays in its own lane.

If the autonomous truck encounters a circumstance it can’t handle (e.g., heavy snow or washed-out lane lines) it will alert the human driver that it’s time for him to take over. But what this technology can do is reduce traffic accidents, and that’s why I’m pretty excited about the whole thing.

A human driver has limited situational awareness. Autonomous trucks offer an extra set of eyes that continuously monitor a broad range of sensors (e.g., visible and infrared light and acoustic, including ultrasound), both passive and active, with a nearly 360-degree field of view.

Therefore, driverless vehicles can more quickly determine a safe reaction to potential hazards and initiate reactions faster than a human driver. For example, traffic collisions caused by human driver errors such as tailgatingrubbernecking and other forms of distracted or aggressive driving would be eliminated.

Safer and more efficient driving is the motivating force behind this emerging technology. It’s not about catching 40 winks on the highway or watching an episode of your favorite show. As cool as that might be to imagine, no one is replacing the human as the ultimate decision-maker.

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About the Author

Dan Holden is the manager of corporate risk and insurance for Daimler Trucks North America (formerly Freightliner), a multinational truck manufacturer with total annual revenue of $15 billion. Holden has been in the insurance field for more than 30 years.

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