As progress is made in the development of driverless cars and trucks, one must wonder about their potential impact on the trucking industry. Although it would be years—if ever—before driverless trucks are a possibility, so called “limited self-driving automation” may be used to combat the ongoing driver shortage.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines different levels of automation. Level 4 would be a full self-driving vehicle, requiring no driver control other than to input the destination. The types of trucks that have been demonstrated so far are Level 3, or limited self-driving automation, which allows the driver to cede control of all safety-critical functions under certain conditions. The driver must be available to take back control of the truck when needed.


For example, in May, Daimler Trucks North America demonstrated the capabilities of its new Freightliner Inspiration Truck. It is equipped with Daimler’s Highway Pilot technology, which includes radar and a stereo camera, in addition to steering and cruise control systems available in other Daimler vehicles. When the driver selects the Highway Pilot feature, the truck will adapt to the speed of nearby vehicles and maintain a regular distance from the car in front. Although the truck won’t be able to change lanes while the automated pilot is activated, it can steer itself in case of a bend in the road. The truck’s human driver is still needed to perform tasks, such as exiting the highway, driving on smaller roads and taking control in case of bad weather or an emergency.


Mercedes-Benz and Peterbilt have developed similar technology as well. It’s important to note that—for now, anyway—a driver is always behind the wheel of these vehicles.


Such technology may play a role in addressing the ongoing driver shortage, which is expected to worsen. HireRight’s Transportation Spotlight 2015 report found that:


  • Projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expect compounded annual growth in employment for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers will reach 11.3 percent between 2012 and 2022;
  • The American Trucking Association estimates an additional 240,000 new truck drivers will be needed by 2023;
  • Trucking is disproportionately dependent on an aging employees 45 years of age and older; and 
  • Fewer young people consider blue collar careers.


However, as a recent HDT Heavy Duty Trucking article explains, even the use of limited self-driving automation may help address those factors by improving drivers’ quality of life, making the job easier, and then there’s a technological “cool” factor. Indeed, the use of these vehicle systems may help reduce driving stress, cut the amount of monotonous time periods on long trips, and have a positive effect on driver health—all of which may make the profession more appealing.


“If we can give that environment to a young driver, where they can connect to the world outside on their iPad while going down the road, it can be used to attract young drivers,” Sandeep Kar, global director of automotive and transportation research for Frost & Sullivan, says in the article.


Finally, if existing truck drivers become more productive and efficient, it may be another means to address the driver shortage because drivers would feel more important, and therefore value their jobs more. One example might be the possibility of letting a driver handle some back office applications or some sort of connectivity related activity—such as locating a backhaul, Kar says in the HDT article.


What are your thoughts on limited self-driving trucks? Do you think their use would help ease the driver shortage? For that matter, are you prepared to see 18-wheelers on the highway with a driver reading a magazine or using a tablet?