In May 2015, Nevada issued Freightliner a license to test out autonomous (driverless) trucks on public highways. The test concept entailed letting the trucks self-drive themselves on limited-access interstate highways, but also mandated the presence of a driver who would assume driving control over the trucks in urban and suburban areas — and could take over at any time that a situation warranted it.

Driverless trucks use sensors and cameras to watch lane lines and surrounding traffic. They are outfitted with global positioning systems (GPS) that provide locational and routes data, and all of these end devices and facilitating technologies are brought together into an overall driving management software system that orchestrates the end-to-end drive.

Already, these driverless trucks are solving longstanding field issues in access to remote, offroad sites.

Mining company Rio Tinto uses the trucks to scale up and down difficult terrain in remote mining areas in Brazil. It has since deployed 57 driverless trucks at its Hope Downs 4 joint iron ore mining venture with Hancock Prospecting in the Pilbara in west Australia.

In the tar sand areas in Alberta, Canada, Suncor Energy, Canada’s largest oil company, recently inked a five-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of earthmoving and construction machines, to purchase new self-driving heavy haul trucks for its mining operations north of Fort McMurray. “It’s not fantasy,” said Suncor’s Chief Financial Officer Alister Cowan at a recent RBC Capital Markets conference in New York. Cowan said that Suncor’s goal was to replace its heavy hauler fleet with automated trucks by the end of the decade, and “that will take 800 people off our site … At an average [salary] of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we’re going to get from an operations perspective.”

Driverless trucks can solve other problems as well.

One of these is fuel consumption and green energy practices. The U.S. Transportation Department says that heavy and medium sized trucks contribute 25 percent of all U.S. greenhouse emissions, adding 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions into the atmosphere annually. Today, many large trucking companies are already using fuel and speed sensors and driver habit sensors attached to brakes to determine whether drivers are driving efficiently from an energy standpoint. Autonomous trucks take this to a new level, because they automatically monitor fuel consumption and apply fuel conservation best practices.

Equally important to the autonomous value proposition are driver safety and an ongoing driver shortage, caused in part by a more robust economy, which has people preferring to work near home and not on the road.

However, there are also looming challenges to driverless truck technology that must be addressed. These include:

  • Failover: What happens when and if software, radar or sensors fail? At what point is a human driver needed?
  • Weather: Will electronic sensors and radar be able to function in extreme conditions of hot, cold or inclement weather?
  • Regulatory concerns: Will other states follow Nevada’s example of allowing driverless trucks on highways, or will we end up with a checkerboard of states allowing driverless trucks where it is virtually impossible for a driverless truck to make an uninterrupted trip across the country?
  • Legal concerns: Who is at fault when a driverless truck fails? The company operating the truck, the driver (if there is one present), the truck manufacturer, the technology provider, or all of them? The law always lags technology, so until cases come up, we don’t really know the legal ramifications.
  • Social and industry resistance: Most of us remember the 2008 economic meltdown and the job losses it caused. Trucking associations and the public at large are still not very receptive to automation that is perceived as taking away employment.

These complex challenges and opportunities clearly place driverless trucks in much the same space that driverless cars and UAVs operate. There is enormous uncertainly, but also great possibility.

So what do we know for now?

A best practice for driverless trucks that most everyone agrees with is that these trucks can be productively used to haul extremely hazardous materials, or to gain access to difficult or dangerous terrain. It is a major reason why mining and oil and gas exploration companies are leading the way in driverless truck adoption.