From light duty to heavy duty, there is excitement—and fear—for the development of autonomous vehicle technology. Vehicle-making giants and tech start-ups are racing to achieve greater efficiency, fuel economy, cost reduction, and increased safety by developing advanced automation systems. On the other hand, the 1.7 million truckers in America are beginning to worry that advances in automated technology will soon replace their steady stream of income.
What is often overlooked is that automated driving technologies do not necessarily equal driverless technologies. In fact, levels of automation have existed in varying forms for decades; however, the road to a fully automated, driverless heavy-duty vehicle is still a long one with many speed bumps along the way.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are five levels of driving automation, including:
- No automation: A driver must perform all aspects of driving and is in complete control at all times.
- Function-specific automation: A driver must perform most aspects of driving but has a control system that will assist with accelerating/decelerating or steering but not both. Examples of this technology include automatic braking or lane-keeping systems.
- Combined function automation: This level involves systems that control at least two primary functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions, but the driver must perform all other functions. An example of combined function is cruise control in combination with lane centering.
- Limited self-driving automation: Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to be relieved of full control of safety-critical functions under specific conditions. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficient transition time. An example of this functionality is the Google car and Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ feature.
- Full self-driving automation: At this stage, the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. This type of vehicle technology anticipates that the driver may provide destination or navigation input but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This level includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.
As the above levels of automation describe, in almost all scenarios you still need a driver to be in control or be capable of taking control of the vehicle. The varying levels of automation help remove specific routine activities for drivers, especially truck drivers who spend much of their time on long stretches of highways. The advancement of these technologies will provide a more comfortable, safe, and efficient driving environment.
Though advancements with self- driving vehicles are no doubt exciting, serious questions persist at the state and federal level about how to define and regulate autonomous driving legally. Earlier this year, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation issued regulatory guidelines for vehicle manufacturers, state regulators, and other stakeholders for the development of autonomous vehicles. The framework intends to set safety standards for companies developing automated technology and to establish a national policy on vehicle automation.
As a number of states begin solidifying regulations and as these advanced technology prototypes become reality, fleet operators can stay in-the-know by tuning in to the annual Advanced Clean Transportation Expo.