You’re late for work and speeding down the highway at nearly 100 kilometers per hour. There are no other cars except for a semi-trailer truck passing along the opposite lane. But when you look, there’s no one in the driver’s seat. Then you realize there’s nobody controlling this 40-ton machine barreling down the highway.
If the idea that computer chips and circuitry are the only things keeping this vehicle in its lane is unnerving, then what about the knowledge that they’re already on the road? Startup company Embark is at the forefront of this movement. Since October, Embark has delivered Frigidaire refrigerators from El Paso, Texas to Palm Springs, California, for over 1,000 km – all with self-driving trucks. But you can rest easy knowing that there is someone in the cab monitoring the computer chauffeur, making notes of issues or glitches, as well as taking over the driving when necessary.
Embark isn’t alone in pushing self-driving delivery trucks into widespread use. Toyota is currently trying to help Pizza Hut deliver orders without the use of drivers through what they call “e-Pallete”. The carmakers describe the concept as having multiple applications as a mobile store, ride-sharing service and package delivery service. Aside from Pizza Hut, Toyota’s partners in this project include Amazon, Uber and Didi (the Chinese ridesharing company).
Unmanned vehicles are not unheard of in Pilbara, Australia. Workers for mining company Rio Tinto control driverless trucks between mining sites 1,200 km away. Twenty-two trucks are used daily to move iron ore, saving 500 hours of human labour per year.
So aside from the fear of driving beside unmanned vehicles, there also comes the fear of millions losing their jobs. “Where drivers are restricted by law from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an 8-hour break, a driverless truck can drive nearly 24 hours per day”. This means the switch would double the work at 25% of the cost. This change could affect the nearly 4 million truck drivers in both the US and Canada.
Changes in the trucking industry are coming, but before the self-driving trucks can be cleared for widespread usage, electric trucks are closer on the horizon. The province of Ontario is offering rebates “of up to 60% of the incremental purchase cost of an electric truck to a cap of $75,000 (CAD) per vehicle”. This incentive is part of the province’s Green Commercial Vehicle Program, helping alleviate the high costs of electric vehicles in order to be greener. Many companies have no problems with going green and have announced their plans to do so.
Parcel delivery service UPS announced it will buy 125 electric semi-trucks from Tesla. Soon after, the makers of Budweiser beer (Anheuser-Busch) reserved 40 Tesla electric semi-trucks. And with Pepsi reserving 100 Tesla electric semi-trucks, the future of trucking seems to be steering into a revolutionary landscape where embracing self-driving trucks won’t be out of the question.
Alex Correa | Staff Writer