As the industry continues to move toward fully autonomous vehicles, it seems that the trucking industry leads the way in numerous categories. This can be due to several factors. First, since the truck is larger, there is more space available to include the computer hardware and robotics necessary to achieve success. Second, the trucks are higher up, giving the sensors a better view of the environment. Third, the majority of long-haul routes take place on highways rather than surface streets making the programming more straightforward.
That said, there are numerous problems that programmers and manufacturers must overcome before totally driverless vehicles are commonplace on the road, including:
- Ethical dilemmas: From no-win thought experiments such as “the trolley problem” to actively accepting the worst solution in a group of bad solutions, the truck’s programming must be robust enough to handle ethical dilemmas. There might come a time where the computer must make a decision that guarantees a collision no matter what choice it makes. While a veteran driver might find a way out of a challenging situation, will the autonomous vehicle have the same chance?
- Adverse conditions: An experienced truck driver will automatically adjust his or her driving style when faced with adverse conditions. From environmental factors such as fog, wind and rain to road conditions such as crowded traffic, construction zones or poor road design, the human trucker will make continuous slight adjustments to keep everyone safe. Programmers must guarantee that the same types of adjustments are made in an autonomous vehicle.
- Economic impact: While it is not a programming or engineering issue, companies must be aware of the economic impact of fully autonomous 18-wheelers. Companies will likely feel some resistance and conflict from numerous organizations concerned with the removal of the career opportunities of countless truck drivers.
Due to their size and speed, collisions involving trucks often result in devastating property damage and catastrophic injuries. An 18-wheeler collision will likely lead to brain damage, paralysis, amputation or death. Programmers and engineers must overcome numerous safety concerns before the public will trust the safety of the roads to a robotic vehicle.