This week we will continue the conversation on the safety of automated trucks.
As mentioned last week, automated trucks will differ from automated cars in a few fundamental ways. Eric Berdinis is a product manager at Otto, a company based out of San Francisco which outfits trucks with self-driving technology. In an interview with Technology Review, he elaborated on some key differences between car and truck automation technology, “From the moment the brakes are applied in a truck going 55 miles per hour, it takes well over the length of a football field for the vehicle to stop. There are only six inches of lane on either side of a truck; meaning even small hazards at the side of the lane can’t be avoided without leaving the lane. Many avoidance algorithms for self-driving cars just don’t apply to trucks,”
Furthermore driving a big rig is more difficult than driving a typical motor vehicle. Truck drivers must know how to make wide turns and how to steer effectively and efficiently. American truck drivers are among the best in the world and must spend months in driving schools and undergo thousands of miles of supervised driving before they can earn their license to drive a big rig. The margin of error for trucks is much smaller than for cars. An accident has a higher potential to be lethal. Companies such as Otto will face more challenges having to overcome these gaps between cars and trucks in the future.
In our current environment, there are also inherent drawbacks to using automation technology. Equipping trucks requires outfitters to place sensors on top of them, but even the best sensors can struggle to give accurate information about the road. These systems don’t function properly in sub-optimal driving conditions, such as rain, ice, or snow. Sensors can also be blinded by sunlight and have a difficult time differentiating between a car on the side of the road or a big sign (Technology Review.) Sensors will also not have the same road intelligence that truckers do. This intelligence may include gauging and predicting driver behavior and reading facial expressions of other drivers on the road.
Additional concerns have been raised over how a self-driving truck will react in novel situations, such as when a truck has a flat tire or a faulty brake line. Experienced truckers may know how to deal with these issues. Conversely an automated system may become confused and act inappropriately in situations that it was not programmed to meet.
There is one advantage, however, to trucks with self-driving sensors; some of the sensors can be mounted on the top of the truck. This allows them to have a wide view of traffic on all sides. This view would allow self-driving trucks to gather more information about the road than human drivers are capable of. These sensors may also address the issue of blind spots that many truckers face.
Next week we will look at how outfitting companies like Otto are developing and testing their technology.
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