As I noted in our initial news piece about Daimler Truck’s major unveiling this week: Freightliner did it.
It launched a road-legal autonomous truck this week in Las Vegas. Let’s all take a moment and reflect on that.
Freightliner — a truck OEM — did it.
Not Google. Not Apple. Not GM. Not Ford.
Not some Chinese company we’ve never heard of.
Freightliner. An American medium- and heavy-duty truck manufacturer.
They beat everyone to the punch with a fully functional, road-ready, Level 3 autonomous commercial vehicle.
And that’s it. Game over. Drivers need to find something else to do to draw a paycheck.
And it’s no different for me. Because who wants to read stories about robot trucks running up and down the nation’s highways, right?
I’ve seen the comments on CCJ and Overdrive and their Facebook pages. I know what many of you out there — particularly drivers — think. I know there’s a lot of angst out there about the gutsy move from Freightliner this week.
But let’s just all chill out for a moment and look at where we are and where we’re going with a little bit of rationality.
To start with: This is not some massive government/fleet conspiracy to screw hard working men and women out of truck-driving jobs.
I’ll be the first to admit that things on the self-driving front are moving fast — much faster than I’d have thought even a year ago.
That said, we’re years — if not decades — away from a time where robot trucks without any human interaction roam our highways and deliver our goods.
The Inspiration truck from Freightliner is not a vehicle that can function without a human driver. Nor was it designed that way. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not five, or even ten years down the road.
Drivers are still important. Drivers are still necessary. And Freightliner even said this week it has no interest in pursuing a Level 4 truly driverless vehicle.
Keep this in mind, however: That for all of the high-end vehicles it sells all over the globe, Daimler opted to launch the world’s first road-legal autonomous vehicle for its flagship North American truck OEM: Not Maybach. Not a super luxurious Mercedes-Benz sedan. Trucks. Class 8 trucks. And that sends a huge message not to just this industry, but to our society at large. Trucking is vital for our sustained economic success. And Daimler obviously understands that on a very profound level.
But trucking faces many challenges and many problems. And right now, day in and day out, the single biggest, overriding and never-ending problem it has is simply finding the drivers our industry needs to keep freight moving.
So what are OEMs supposed to do? Just tell fleets and owner-operators “Too bad. We have no interest in helping you solve this problem?”
No. That’s not how this world works. Innovation, daring, initiative and action are what’s needed. And Freightliner accepted that challenge. It stepped up to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park. And it deserves all the credit in the world for such a brave move.
And yet: In the near term, not a lot is going to change in trucking, for fleets or for drivers.
Because as dramatic as this week’s Freightliner news is, the reality on the ground is that there is an awful lot of work to do before autonomous commercials vehicles make an significant impact on the way fleets and drivers operate in this country.
For starters, an autonomous truck is an incredible achievement in its own right. But, as Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler AG Board of Directors, noted in his comments this week, that technology is severely handicapped without the support of smart highways to operate on and a pool of similarly connected and smart vehicles around it to communicate with and interact with.
That’s a tall order considering the current state of this country’s infrastructure. We can’t even patch potholes effectively at the moment. So we’re a long way away from creating the sort of intelligent and dynamic highways required for a Level 3 vehicle like the Freightliner Inspiration to operate in.
Will that ever happen?
Yes. It has to, if American is serious about maintaining its status as a great nation in a global economy that becomes ever-more dependent on logistics and freight every day.
Freightliner gave not just this industry, not just this country, but the entire world a look at the future of transportation and logistics this week. Change is coming. And it’s coming far faster than any of us dared imagine just a short time ago.
Change is always frightening. But, ultimately, change is inevitable.
The question now that Freightliner has thrown down the autonomous truck gauntlet is will this industry — and this nation — respond?