Self-Driving Trucks Will Always Need People

Remote human operators will still take the wheel in fiddly situations

2 min read

Illustration: Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

illustrationIllustration: Dan Page

We all know how a self-driving vehicle is supposed to act, thanks to companies and startups like Waymo and Uber: These cars and trucks should be outfitted with enough sensors and computing power to put all humans in the passenger seat.

But that rosy vision ignores current laws and practices. For example, while California has approved autonomous-vehicle testing without a safety driver since February 2018, those vehicles must still have a remote operator who can step in to pilot the car in an emergency. It’s not sexy, but the big secret of autonomous cars is that there’s still a human behind many of them.

Consider commercial vehicles, like semitrailer trucks. Trucking is a relatively high-paying job that’s approachable for a diversity of people, and these drivers fear self-driving versions. This fear over massive unemployment is a big part of the discussion around such truck fleets.

But that’s not the future that’s developing. Instead of creating truly autonomous fleets, the industry is looking at remotely operated autonomous vehicles. Companies like autonomous truck company Starsky Robotics and telecom-equipment manufacturer Ericsson are creating a future of semi-autonomous semitrucks.

In December 2018, Starsky filed a plan with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to use remote-controlled trucks for deliveries. A human would remotely drive the truck from a distribution center to the highway. However, once the truck is on the highway, its own sensors and autonomous system would take over.

Remote-control operations require fast, reliable cellular coverage. That’s why, in November, Ericsson and Einride, a Swedish electric-autonomous-vehicle company, built a test track in Sweden to see how remote operations would work in practice. Einride provided the trucks, called T-pods, while Ericsson, in collaboration with Scandinavian telco Telia, supplied the 5G network.

In ongoing trials, the T-pods are making deliveries between two DB Schenker warehouses in Sweden—and a human has to take over by remote control in roughly 10 percent of the tests. These tests show that even though Einride trucks can drive themselves most of the time, it’s best to have a person to easily step in when the AI encounters something it can’t handle.

But how many trucks can one person safely monitor? If each person can monitor only one truck, many of the costs associated with eliminating human drivers fall by the wayside. Åsa Tamsons, a senior vice president at Ericsson, has suggested a network operations center (NOC), with alerts notifying monitoring humans which trucks need assistance. It could be like a cross between an air-traffic control tower and a traditional telecommunications NOC.

Robert Falck, CEO of Einride, says that the company wants to reach a 10:1 ratio of vehicles to people. In Falck’s mind, the combination of humans and autonomous cars will continue for quite some time.

“It’s about experience and understanding how even if you have an autonomous, reliable system, you need a human in the mix,” says Falck. “Then you start to understand that remote drivers and autonomous vehicles will be working together even if we reach Level 5 autonomy.” Level 5 autonomy is when a vehicle can be considered to be driving itself.

Except apparently, we’ll still need a person behind the wheel—even if they’re not, you know, physically behind the wheel.

This article appears in the March 2019 print issue as “Autonomous Trucks Need People.”

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