Autonomous Trucking: Who's in the Driver's Seat?

Understanding Autonomous Technology

It’s important to understand exactly what we are talking about when we refer to “autonomous,” “self-driving vehicles” or “driverless technology.”

Regardless of what you call it, a simpler way to look at autonomous driving technology is in terms of levels of automation. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have both issued guidelines for what the various levels of autonomy mean in cars. Although the guidelines for the SAE and NHTSA differ, these same general guidelines can be a useful tool in understanding what autonomy means in trucking.

The Five Levels of Driving Automation Legend
The Five Levels of Driving Automation Chart

Autonomous Technologies

It’s important to understand the technology that enables vehicle automation is comprised of several different types of technologies and innovations working together. As we’ve seen with ADAS innovations, these are complex systems. Depending on the exact features, autonomous driving technology can be a mix of many advanced technologies, such as onboard computers, sensors, lasers, radar, video cameras, cloud computing services, satellites, GPS and even artificial intelligence.

We’ve already seen the many benefits of today’s ADAS systems, such as collision mitigation and lane departure warnings.

Studies Show

that forward collision mitigation systems have 
the potential to:

Prevent Up to 20%

of the total 5.8 million reported crashes in the U.S. per year.

Including 66K

serious and moderate 
injury crashes.

And 879

fatal crashes.


Next to the continuing improvements and advancements in ADAS systems, platooning represents a near-term viable step toward autonomous trucking. International® Truck is currently evaluating multiple options for bringing this technology to market. This is a technology that holds a lot of promise and potential for trucking as a means of reducing cost of ownership.

A truck platooning system allows several partially automated trucks to follow closely to each other – usually 40 to 50 feet apart – enabled by state-of-the-art driver support systems. Cloud-based connectivity can also be an integral part of platooning, such as OnCommand® Connection (OCC) by International Truck. OCC can enable bi-directional and secure communication between platooning trucks, as well as aid with alerts, traffic, weather, logistics and GPS data.

The front driver has full control of the vehicle. For vehicles that are following, each driver has partial control of the truck – they can steer, but the braking and acceleration are automated in order to keep a precise distance behind the truck ahead, as well as ensure safety.

Platooning Offers Several Advantages:

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Fuel Consumption Savings

Trucks that are following behind another truck benefit from an average of 10 percent reduced drag. Constant speed also contributes to fuel savings.

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Increased Safety

Systems feature virtually instant braking time (ten milliseconds), so platooning can improve traffic safety and cut down on accidents.

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Help Traffic Flow

Platooning can reduce tail-back, vehicles move at continuous speed for better traffic flow and the shorter distance between vehicles takes up less space on the road.

How Truck Platooning Works

Truck Platooning Infographic

Other Autonomous Technologies

Although platooning is taking center stage for the moment, there are several other innovations in development with planned releases over the next few years. Besides the many driving automations, these soon-to-come features include various levels of parking and docking assistance and range from partially automated to fully automated operations.

The International Truck POV on autonomous trucks

In our view, autonomous driving technology has the potential to transform the industry. We believe autonomous trucking is really about two things: safety and efficiency.

We anticipate automated driving will boost both safety and efficiency to levels our industry has never seen before. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” autonomous driving technology will be the dominant force in our industry.

That’s why International Truck embraces this technology, with a pragmatic approach. We are working to develop, test and launch autonomous trucking in a smart and methodical way. To us, that means a product development roadmap that rolls out this technology one automation level at a time, unleashing the technology’s potential to bring tremendous benefits to fleet owners.

It’s About Safety

For many in mainstream society, the prospect of an automated behemoth traveling at high speed on a highway may seem dangerous. But, for those of us that understand the technology and the sophistication of the systems, it’s quite the opposite.

Autonomous technology and artificial intelligence have the potential to take human error entirely out of the equation for a real possibility of crashes becoming a thing of the past. A human driver also has limited visibility, senses and knowledge of what’s down the road. With an autonomous truck equipped with sensors around the entire perimeter of a vehicle, visibility can be unlimited. Video, laser and radar add the ability to sense other vehicles, objects and road conditions in instantaneous and precise ways that no human could ever achieve. The technology behind it is spatial imaging. The truck’s onboard computer instantly processes various sensor data and models the environment in real time, recognizing surrounding objects faster than humanly possible.

It’s About Efficiency

The value of efficiency improvements industry-wide that could be brought about from autonomous level 4 and level 5 penetration in the trucking industry is forecasted to save the industry $59 billion. These potential gains in efficiency cover a wide range of areas within trucking – everything from driver time efficiencies to operational improvements to transport time savings and more.

The chart on the right demonstrates the areas of efficiency impacted by autonomy.

Efficiencies with Autonomous Trucks Graph

The Role of the Driver

International Truck values the role of the driver going forward into the autonomous future. We believe it's a role that will evolve, not be eliminated. When we look at the airline industry and how autopilot technology was integrated in airplanes, it was – and still is – considered an assistive innovation that allows pilots to do their jobs better and safer.

Improving the Driver Experience

All partially or highly automated levels can greatly assist drivers in what has historically been a difficult and even grueling job on the road. Automation can make the job easier in several ways and help improve driver wellness: fewer accidents due to distraction, better hours of service, reduced stress and greater comfort, less time sitting in traffic, along with many others.

What Has to Happen

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Policymakers appear to understand the benefits of autonomous technology, with several states already cleared for testing. In addition, a legal driving framework needs updating, and liability issues must be identified.

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Driver Acceptance

There’s a prevalent skepticism with many drivers about autonomy, as well as an understandable concern that their jobs will be replaced by technology.

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Social Acceptance

As with all autonomous vehicles, the public has yet to fully embrace the concept of autonomy, and trucking may experience the same resistance, if not more. The responsibility is on product developers and testers to ensure all safety measures are taken.

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Digitized Supply Chain and Connectivity

Technology communications platforms will be a key component that must be integrated with autonomous trucks. Digital supply chain technology will have to continue to develop and align with autonomous technologies.

For a deeper dive into our point of view on autonomous vehicles,