Autonomous vehicle companies already have trucks on the road, transporting shipments on designated routes with minimal human supervision. Some claim that by the end of the year they’ll be testing fully driverless routes. Proponents of driverless vehicles claim that they are both faster and safer than human drivers, which makes them highly appealing for heavy equipment transportation. But the technology’s main weak points mean automation has a long way to go before it can replace truckers and transportation companies when it comes to heavy loads.

Where Autonomous Trucking Currently Stands

The Society of Automotive Engineer’s defines 6 levels of driving automation ranging from Level 0 (total human control) to Level 5 (fully autonomous). Most tractor trailers on the road currently are at what we call a Level 0+: no system is fully automated, but several systems (like cruise control, automatic brakes, blind spot alerts) assist the driver. Dynamic cruise control would make a vehicle Level 1. If the truck could steer and accelerate/decelerate, it’d be a Level 2.

Right now, automated vehicle companies have Level 3s in development and are testing Level 4s. At Level 3, the system can control the vehicle and make basic informed decisions (like passing other vehicles) but the trucker must be present at all times. The difference between level 3 and Level 4 is that the vehicle can make emergency decisions and correct for system failure.

Level 4 driverless 18-wheelers are already on the road. Waymo and TuSimple have been testing them on designated routes in the Southwest for over a year. TuSimple plans to begin testing Level 5 driverless routes later this year. Here’s the catch though: everything has been done on straight, long distance deliveries, and the trucker takes over control upon entering and exiting loading zones.

Driverless Trucking’s Biggest Obstacles

In 2018, a report that predicted 8 million Level 3-5 trucks would be used in shipping and transportation by 2025 shook the industry. While the technology’s progress has been impressive, several issues stand in the way of this forecast becoming a reality.

  1. Scaling Difficulty: Progressing from testing phase to commercialization in any industry is difficult. Manufacturing machinery as complex—and as large—as automated tractor trailers at scale is a gargantuan task. Even once research has been entirely completed, and the artificial intelligence trained on any number of rare scenarios to meet safety standards, it will take years for companies to be able to build and leverage automated trucks in the thousands, let alone millions. 
  2. Regulation: Experts predict that for at least the next 5 to 10 years autonomous trucks will require human co-pilots in order to meet safety regulations. It isn’t necessarily that driverless trucks need to make safety headway, it’s that they need to prove consistent performance at scale, which takes time.

The bigger problem: the federal government has opted out of regulating autonomous vehicles, meaning the standards are different in every state and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. As heavy load transportation has taught us, regulation will need to be almost universal between states for driverless trucks to make a major impact on the industry.

  • Technology Blind Spots: Cameras and sensors can give autonomous vehicles a 360-view of the tractor trailer, but these tools can also become obstructed in the rain or struggle to see lane lines in the snow. One of the biggest difficulties in the industry is creating a camera that can seen beyond 200 yards—the average distance it takes a fully loaded tractor trailer moving at highway speeds to stop.
  • Emergency Planning: Level 4 vehicles can account for internal system emergencies, but often aren’t programmed for emergency situations on the road. They can stop or pull over when they spot a wreck ahead, but it takes a truck driver to respond to first responders and come up with creative solutions to unique circumstances.
  • Last Mile Delivery: Navigating city streets with interference from pedestrians, narrow loading bays, inadequate parking, unexpected construction—the list of unforeseen circumstances that most truckers tackle upon last mile deliveries is formidable. That’s a lot of circumstances to program into a supercomputer, and the chances that government officials will allow an unmanned 20- to 40-ton vehicle in a crowded area any time soon are slim.

Where Automated Vehicles Work in Transportation

Driverless trucking is at its best on consistent, high-volume locations, especially those in warmer climates with less precipitation (hence why most testing grounds are in Arizona). Most automated vehicle companies have set their sights on picking a few, major long-haul routes and selling their technology’s ability to cover them more efficiently than truckers. It’s true that automated vehicles can run 24-hours a day with absolute mileage consistency. But, again, human truckers are directing these vehicles into and out of loading bays.

Why Heavy Load Transportation Needs Humans

Transporting heavy machinery is a unique circumstance. Every time. Industrial equipment is larger and heavier than most freight. Transporting it almost always ironically means an LTL shipment as well as an oversize load. Oversize loads take planning, permits, extra attention to safety, and sometimes even escort vehicles (depending on the state and load).

Heavy equipment loads are often also being moved within the same city—it’s not the distance but the difficulty that requires a transportation professional’s assistance. A transportation company like Rowe Transfer has to examine the exact details of the job and create strategies and contingencies.

What all this means in the context of automation: oversize loads are the end of the road for automation, once it’s covered probably every other base in the transportation industry.

Heavy loads are right in automation’s blind spot, because:

  1. Heavy equipment transport is deeply regulated, whether it’s simply an oversized load or transporting a radioactive medical device.
  2. Heavy equipment transport does not move mass quantities on long routes. It’s usually large but irregular loads on short to mid-size routes.
  3. Heavy equipment transportation always involves unusual circumstances. Even the most experienced professionals need to strategize rigging and transporting heavy equipment.
  4. The last mile is everything in heavy equipment transportation. We’ve built a company on that concept.

A Heavy Equipment Transportation Company with Human Expertise

Rowe Transfer has been in the transportation business for over a hundred years, and yet we stay abreast of the latest innovations in the field. We know all the tricks it takes to successfully transport all types of heavy equipment. We specialize in moving loads that are too big or difficult for most transportation companies to handle. Whether you need a piece of heavy equipment moved across town or across the county, we have you covered. We will work with you every step of the way, from planning through execution, so you can have peace of mind that your heavy equipment will be safe and secure during the entire transportation process. If you are ready to enlist our help in shipping heavy equipment, give us a call today at 865-523-0421 or reach out to us online.