In a move that could pave the way for self-driving commercial trucks, the U.S. Army plans a highway test this summer of driverless convoy technology.
The experiment will examine how the vehicles communicate with one another, with nonmilitary vehicles and with the roadway infrastructure through radio links. The trucks, for example, will send their speed and location to roadside transponders that will reply with data such as lane closures and speed limits.
The test will take place in June with at least four vehicles on a stretch of Interstate 69 in Michigan.
For now, drivers will keep control of the trucks, but the Army plans tests on the interstate of driverless capability — robotic control of the vehicles, said Douglas Halleaux, an Army spokesman.
“It won’t be in June, but it won’t be long,” Halleaux said.
The autonomous vehicles have been tested in self-driving mode before but not on public roads.
“We’re very sensitive to the safety of our engineers and our neighbors on the roadways,” Halleaux said.
The Army is “taking this extra step with the radios before we make the big plunge to give our engineers and the public confidence in the trucks’ capabilities,” he said.
The case for the Army is clear: Vehicles that could drive themselves as well as or better than soldiers would leave fighters free to perform other tasks.
“Army line-haul convoys currently require at least two personnel in each vehicle, not including escort or protection vehicles,” said Paul Rogers, director of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich.
Taking soldiers out of truck cabs in war zones would reduce the potential for causalities, Rogers said.
It’s even potentially important outside of the battlefield. Robotic driving could prevent dangers such as driver fatigue and human error.
“Autonomy enhances mission safety and keeps our war fighters from unnecessary risk,” Rogers said.
How quickly the commercial trucking industry embraces this type of technology will depend on three factors: federal regulations of autonomous driving, the public’s perception of risks on the road and the profit potential for trucking companies that adopt the technology.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took a major step toward facilitating a transition to driverless technology when it ruled in February that an autonomous vehicle would carry the same responsibilities as a driver.
“We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a Feb. 10 statement.
“Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant. But the burden remains on self-driving-car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards,” Foxx said.
Both carmakers and commercial trucking companies are making strides toward the widespread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles — some automakers are working to introduce self-driving cars by 2020.
Last year, Daimler Trucks North America licensed its Freightliner “Inspiration Truck” as the first semiautonomous commercial truck to operate on a U.S. public highway. Experts say that such developments have the potential to greatly improve the industry’s productivity.
If the Army’s experiment proves successful as well, autonomous technology has a greater chance of winning acceptance among regulators, the public and the commercial trucking industry, said Stephen Viscelli, a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College who studies trucking.
“The commercial applications are absolutely enormous,” Viscelli said. “It’s going to be revolutionary.”
The immediate vision for commercial trucking would mirror the Army’s test: a truck operated by a human driver, followed by several semiautonomous vehicles with their own power units.
“You could move several times more freight, and you might be able to do it 24 hours a day,” Viscelli said. “We could easily see productivity double or triple.”
In addition to helping commercial convoys efficiently comply with weight limits on bridges, driverless platoons could combat urban congestion and tight corners.
“The great thing about platooning is you can have the platooned vehicles spread apart to make weight,” Viscelli said. “That removes the single biggest challenge to long-combination vehicles. With more than one trailer, you might be able to get off an interstate exit, but unless you uncouple the second or third trailer you aren't going to make turns on other roads.”
Whether commercial trucking firms will implement the technology depends on one question: Will the benefits outweigh the expense?
The business already operates on thin margins, Viscelli said, and “it’s tough to justify focusing on fuel efficiency when fuel is going to drop below $2 a gallon.”
Labor is another major expense, typically constituting one-third of a firm’s cost of operating each truck. The average driver logs 130,000 miles annually, said Stephen Sashihara, chief executive of Princeton Consultants in Princeton, N.J.
Driverless technology could cut costs for trucking companies, not just by reducing the number of drivers they would employ but also by improving efficiency by allowing workers to focus on tasks besides driving.
It could also alleviate a crucial problem for trucking companies: a shortage of drivers. The industry has unfilled openings for as many as 48,000 more drivers as of the end of 2015, according to the American Trucking Associations.
As the average age of the workforce creeps past 50, the dearth of drivers will only get worse, leaving autonomous technology as a potential answer.
“This question in my mind is whether the world is ready for a fully autonomous truck, Version 1.0,” Sashihara said. “The necessary step to gain acceptance among the public and regulators would be something like a phase where you have a human driver and autopilot features.”
Such a growth phase “diminishes the business case but doesn’t obliterate it,” Sashihara said. “We’re getting so much value out of drones. These are drones with wheels.”
Editor’s note: This article was prepared by Trucks.com but appeared first on Forbes.com as part of a content distribution agreement.