Why trucks are leading the way when it comes to autonomous technology

Carmakers are making incredible advances when it comes to autonomous technology, but the first fully autonomous vehicles to hit the roads may actually be trucks, with the transport behemoths proving naturally suited to self-driving technology.

Packaging

Self-driving vehicles cram in an incredible amount of technology. There’s LiDAR, radar, a huge array of different cameras and other sensors, mapping and GPS and a computer that has to make sense of it all. If it’s electric you then need bulky and heavy batteries and motors, and all this can be difficult to package in a car that’s already designed around its passengers.

Trucking is different, and when you’re towing a trailer that weighs tens of tons, where there’s no need to be able to fit in a regular sized garage or in a parking space, adding extra technology becomes a whole lot easier. There’s far more space, for starters, making it possible to add much bigger batteries for a useable range, and an extra few hundred kilograms won’t make anywhere near the same sized dent in efficiency or performance as it would on a much smaller, lighter vehicle.

Natural habitat

The latest ADAS features offer the ability for cars to drive themselves at a set distance from the vehicle in front; they can steer, change lanes, brake automatically and even park themselves, but the biggest challenge is likely to come in cities, where there are millions of pedestrians, erratic drivers and more obstacles to get to grips with.

Because of this, there’s a good chance we’ll see autonomous vehicles driving on motorways first where there are fewer variables. Vehicles can only drive in one direction and (generally) in designated lanes, there are no sharp turns, and there are generally no pedestrians. It’s an environment that’s a lot more predictable, and it’s also an environment where most fleets spend the majority of their miles. Trucks are big, not particularly manoeuvrable and they’re designed to carry goods over long distances, and as such they’re an ideal match for motorways and early autonomous technology.

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