The machines are here, and they are taking to Virginia’s highways.
The vehicle manufacturer Daimler Trucks and the technology firm Torc Robotics are now testing self-driving trucks on U.S. public roads for the first time with Interstate 81 in southwest Virginia as the initial target, CNBC reported in September.
Formerly known as Freightliner Corporation, Daimler Trucks North America is headquartered in Portland, Ore., and is now a subsidiary of the German company Daimler AG. Daimler owns Torc Robotics, which develops self-driving autonomous vehicle software and is based in Blacksburg.
While the tests are currently confined to one company in one part of the state, Virginia could see more autonomous vehicles on the road in the future, as private companies and public officials alike explore the technology’s possible economic and safety benefits.
“More than 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error,” the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Marshall Herman, who is a special assistant to the office of the secretary of transportation, said. “Our hope is, as automation becomes a bigger part of the overall fleet of vehicles on our roadways, we will see a steady decrease in crash numbers.”
The automated trucks used in Daimler’s tests were developed to reach Level 4 on the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s standards for automated driving technology.
Level 4 is just shy of full automation, allowing the vehicle to drive without human assistance or intervention but requiring certain conditions to be met for the automated features to operate.
Daimler deployed its automated trucks on I-81 after months of testing and safety validation on a closed loop track, Daimler says in a Sept. 9 news release.
All automated trips require an engineer who oversees the system along with a certified safety driver with a commercial driver’s license and special training in vehicle dynamics and automated systems, according to Daimler.
“Torc Robotics is a leader in automated driving technology. Daimler Trucks is the market leader in trucks, and we understand the needs of the industry,” Daimler AG trucks and buses division head Martin Daum said. “Bringing Level 4 trucks to the public roads is a major step toward our goal to deliver reliable and safe trucks for the benefits of our customers, our economies and society.”
Though Daimler is testing its autonomous trucks exclusively in the state’s southwest region for now, self-driving technology is starting to gain a foothold in other parts of Virginia as well.
Fairfax County will have the first state-funded autonomous public transportation with an electric shuttle pilot that it plans to conduct in Merrifield next year with Dominion Energy, which is responsible for acquiring the vehicles.
Approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on June 25, the Connected Autonomous Vehicle Demonstration Project will provide a new travel option between the Mosaic District in Merrifield and the Dunn Loring Metro Station, while letting the county and Dominion study the operational, economic, and environmental impacts of the technology.
The pilot is funded with a $250,000 Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation grant and a $50,000 local match from the county.
Residents of the future Halley Rise in Reston will also encounter self-driving vehicles when the mixed-use development opens, likely in 2022.
Halley Rise developer Brookfield Properties announced on Feb. 7 that it had partnered with the self-driving vehicle technology company Optimus Ride to deploy autonomous cars at the 36-acre property.
Where the autonomous shuttles in Merrifield will always have a safety steward on board to take manual control if necessary, Optimus Ride will only have safety operators in its cars at Halley Rise until riders become comfortable with the technology. The vehicles will be programmed to adhere to a 20 miles-per-hour speed limit and stay in the development’s confines.
While the public and media tend to focus on cars when picturing self-driving vehicles in the real world, TRUCKiD.COM product training director Richard Reina believes trucks may ultimately offer a more realistic application for the technology.
In his work for the truck parts supplier, Reina follows technological developments and other trends within the industry, and he says the opportunity to cut down on operating costs makes automation appealing to truck fleet operators like Daimler.
With 65 percent of consumable goods in the U.S. delivered by truck, full automation would save the trucking industry between $85 billion and $125 billion, reducing operating costs by 45 percent, according to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which published a report on the potential impact of autonomous trucks in December 2018.
Some savings would come from not having to pay for labor, which Reina acknowledges would be a concern for the 3.5 million people who work as truck drivers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, savings would also come from logistical efficiencies, such as the ability to move goods without the breaks that a human driver needs.
“[The] short-term impact to the loss of jobs looks bad,” Reina said. “If you’re looking at this kind of savings, also think, though, about…the reduction in cost to you and me, the end consumer, both in shipping costs as well as possibly the goods that we’re purchasing.”
Still, safety issues have become a barrier to the deployment of autonomous vehicles, even as proponents argue that automation will be an improvement from human drivers.
The Virginia Highway Safety Office’s most recent data shows that Virginia had 131,848 traffic crashes in 2018 with 819 fatalities and 66,523 injured people. 18.3 percent of crashes occurred on the interstate compared to 81.7 percent on other roads.
Commercial motor vehicles are involved in 3.8 percent of all traffic crashes, while large trucks are involved in 1.9 percent of crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 94 percent of serious motor vehicle crashes are the result of human error, which could be reduced by fully automated vehicles that can see more and act faster.
However, autonomous driving technology has not reached that point yet, and high-profile incidents involving self-driving vehicles have understandably made people wary, Reina says.
A woman hit and killed by a self-driving car operated by the ride-share company Uber in Tempe, Ariz., became the first pedestrian killed in a crash involving an autonomous vehicle in March 2018. Video showed that the Uber driver got briefly distracted, but the vehicle’s sensors failed to register a pedestrian and brake or steer away.
The woman’s family later settled with Uber, which pulled its test vehicles off the roads under orders from the Arizona governor, according to Arizona Central.
Tesla has also been subject to scrutiny for crashes, some of them fatal, involving its Autopilot driver assistance system, which is not a full self-driving technology since a human driver is still required to pay attention, but critics have argued that it gives drivers a false sense of security.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in September that Tesla’s Autopilot contributed to a January 2018 accident in California, the second time that the company was found partially responsible for a crash, according to Wired.
Federal investigators determined that the driver in the January 2018 crash used Autopilot in ways inconsistent with instructions, but they also said Tesla has not done enough to ensure drivers stay attentive while using the feature.
“The car industry has really come to the realization that autonomy is not going to be easy to get to,” Reina, who has worked for European car companies, said. “…There are very severe safety concerns. This technology cannot be launched without it being utterly foolproof. We’re talking about people’s lives.”
Reina argues that autonomous technology does not pose the same safety risks for trucks, since the technology is being implemented in a more controlled way.
“They’re embracing it in a way that makes more sense for them,” Reina said. “Use the vehicles, the trucks, on the highway, and look at how overall we can improve the efficiency and improve the profitability of our industry and how that can affect everybody.”