The Five Levels of Autonomy in “Self-Driving” Trucks

By October 15, 2015 Technology

The “buzz” is all about autonomous vehicles, but what’s the state of that technology when it comes to trucks?

The trucking industry has been buzzing since Freightliner announced Inspiration, a self-driving truck, earlier this year. Since then, Peterbilt announced its Advanced Driver Assistance System, which it says is “a stepping stone to autonomous driving.” Both trucks use technology to take over some portion of the driving. Words like autonomous, self-driving, and driverless are being used to describe these vehicles.

And while there is no doubt that, to some extent, these trucks are self-driving, it is important to understand that there are levels of autonomy when it comes to commercial vehicles. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified five levels of autonomous vehicles.

Level 0 is no automation, while Level 1 has function-specific automation for things like electronic stability control. Level 2 is combined function automation and means two functions work together. The example here is adaptive cruise control working with lane centering. Limited self-driving automation is Level 3. NHTSA says Level 3 automation enables the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions – and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. Level 4 is full self-driving automation, where the vehicle performs all safety critical driving functions for the entire trip.

Both the Freightliner and Peterbilt offerings are at Level 3 on the autonomous scale, with much work to be done before they get to Level 4. The companies are being aided in their efforts to develop fully autonomous trucks by the fact that the state of Nevada is the first state that has granted a license for autonomous commercial vehicles to operate on public highways. This will allow for further testing of the vehicles.

And while all this is very exciting, we are years away from seeing a fully autonomous truck on the road. However, given all the technologies that are available today like lane departure warning, automatic braking, GPS, terrain prediction, platooning, telematics, etc., an autonomous vehicle is likely at some point in the future. But for now, there will not be trucks without drivers on the road. However, we will continue to see advancements made toward the day when trucks will be fully autonomous.

One roadblock that will need to be overcome concerns security. Computer hackers have been able to get into places like the Pentagon, Home Depot and Target. It is a concern to think what they might do to vehicles that are controlled by computers and communicating via telematics. I am confident that cyber security is high on the list of issues truck makers are working on as they continue developing trucks with various levels of automation.

When will we see fully autonomous vehicles? I cannot be sure, but I do know that given the developments that have already occurred that it’s more a matter of when rather than if. In the meantime the whole industry will continue to reap the benefits of the systems that have been developed in the move toward autonomy.

How do you think this technology will affect the industry and your business?

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Joe Puff

About Joe Puff

Joe Puff is the Vice President of Truck Technology and Maintenance for NationaLease. He has more than 35 years of experience in complex sales and fleet operations, including extensive experience in commercial vehicle maintenance. Joe is responsible for advising NationaLease members and the National Account team of new truck technology, industry trends, and maintenance best practices.

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