While news outlets worldwide have been discussing the possibility of autonomous cars for some time now, the very first semi-autonomous truck quietly beat them to the finish line. Many thought we would be waiting a few more years before autonomous vehicles hit the roads, but it seems to have arrived much quicker than anticipated thanks to the San Francisco-based company Otto (now Uber ATG).
The first semi-autonomous truck completes delivery
According to WIRED, on October 20, 2016 an 18-wheeler loaded with 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer completed what is believed to be the very first commercial shipment by a self-driving truck. Otto, a subsidiary of Uber, is a developer of semi-autonomous truck technology and outfitted the truck with over $30,000 worth of hardware and software to complete the delivery.
The delivery, which was almost 200 kilometres long, took place on Colorado’s Interstate 25. A professional driver was behind the wheel until the truck made it to the highway. Once safely through the onramp, he simply pressed a button and moved back to the sleeper berth to manage the rest of the trip from there. Cruising at approximately 90 kilometres per hour, the truck made it safely from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
The benefits of semi-autonomous trucks and cars
In a post published to the official Otto Blog on October 25, the company said:
“With an Otto-equipped vehicle, truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them. When you’ll see a truck driving down the road with nobody in the front seat, you’ll know that it’s highly unlikely to get into a collision, drive aggressively, or waste a single drop of fuel.”
Increased safety is one of the biggest advantages to a semi-autonomous truck and autonomous vehicles as a whole. Currently, the number of preventable traffic fatalities and injuries in Canada remains unacceptably high, according to the Insurance Institute of Canada (IIC). The IIC’s recent research report on autonomous vehicles found that this type of technology will significantly improve driving safety across the country.
The report uses the example of rear-end collisions and cites data from the National Transportation and Safety Board in the U.S. from 2012. The data showed that there was a total of 1.7 million rear-end collisions nationally that year, which resulted in 1,705 fatalities and 500,000 injuries. The IIC suggests that the collision warning system technology, combined with the emergency braking feature found in most autonomous vehicles and trucks will hold “great promise to reduce the frequency and severity of forward collisions.” Human error accounts for approximately 90% of all vehicle collisions. By removing this variable, it’s likely that the total number of car accidents in a year will decrease as well.
Senior Risk Services Solutions Trainer for Northbridge Insurance Bill Cowan agrees that autonomous vehicle technology is helping to make our roads safer. When asked his thoughts on this topic he said, “One of the biggest concerns that original equipment manufacturers (O.E.Ms), parts manufacturers, government legislators, owners, etc. all share, and there is absolutely no doubt about this, is safety. With all of the technological advancements, whether they are mechanical, intellectual or anything else, our roads are becoming safer.”
The IIC also predicted that this technology will grow steadily over the next 10 years.
Over the next 10 years IIC has predicted that:
- Conventional vehicles will likely drop to 70-90% of the total kilometres driven on Canadian roads
- Semi-automated cars and trucks will likely increase to between 10-25% of kilometres driven in Canada
- Self-driving vehicles will likely account for less than 5% of the kilometres driven on public roads in Canada
Bill Cowan agreed that this technology is growing and will continue to do so, but said there is still a long way to go. He shared that, “O.E.Ms, parts manufacturers and industry specialists say that it will likely be well over 20 years from now before you see an entirely driverless truck. What I mean by that is a truck with no driver, and probably not even a cab or driver compartment. This vehicle would likely be used with special applications as well so professional, experienced and highly-trained truck drivers will always be needed for certain jobs.”
There are also a number of environmental and economic benefits to semi-autonomous trucks and cars. Road transportation is currently responsible for almost 20% of global CO2 emissions. The technology used in autonomous vehicles optimizes the efficiency of accelerating and braking to help maintain an optimal cruising speed and avoid unnecessary stop-and-go. Semi-autonomous trucks in particular could lead to a 10% reduction in fuel consumption.
Looking at the potential for this technology through an economic lens yields further benefits. Research done by the Conference Board of Canada found that the increased safety, the time saved and the reduction in fuel consumption will have major financial benefits nationally. In Canada, there are 2,000 vehicle collision fatalities per year, most of which are attributed to human error. By reducing the number of vehicle collisions per year through the use of autonomous vehicles, we not only save lives, but could save the country $37.4 billion dollars a year.
This shift in technology will without a doubt cause changes within the insurance industry as well. Stay tuned to this blog for updates as this technology is further developed.