Self-driving cars are getting all the headlines. But judging by a convoy's recent test drive across Europe, self-driving trucks may transform our roads first.
A dozen or so trucks completed a week-long challenge on Thursday in which they drove, for the most part autonomously, across Western Europe.
The Dutch government organized the challenge as part of its 2016 presidency of the European Union, which rotates among countries annually. The trucks, made by brands including Volvo, Daimler and Volkswagen subsidiary Scania, journeyed from their production bases in Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Germany to their final destination in the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Self-driving trucks could lower shipping expenses by cutting labor costs and, with no weary drivers, letting trucks drive nonstop. It could also put a lot of people out of a job: in the US, one of the most common jobs is truck driving, according to census data.
The trucks might not be cute like the autonomous pod cars Google is testing, but they are very much a precursor to the self-driving personal vehicles that individuals will own. The findings from the truck experimentation will trickle down to affect how everyone uses roads in the future.
Using a technique called platooning, the trucks followed one another extremely closely as they drove at a constant speed. Linked by Wi-Fi, they could brake instantly, preventing road accidents caused by humans who don't react as fast even if they aren't distracted or sleepy. Platooning promises to improve traffic safety, reduce fuel consumption, and squeeze vehicles onto the road more densely for higher traffic flow.
"As the test shows, the technology has come a long way already," said Dutch Infrastructure and Environment Minister Schultz van Hagen. "What it also makes clear is that we Europeans need to better harmonise rules of the road and rules for drivers. This will open the door for upscaled, cross-border truck platooning."
Those behind the challenge hope EU member states will now grant permission for truck platooning to be used on national road networks. They hope countries will implement new technologies that improve safety and efficiency while driving, as well as enable the introduction of self-driving trucks into the existing market.