Tesla self-driving electric tractor-trailer.
Photo: Tesla

For all the talk of self-driving cars, autonomous trucks might beat them to a road near you.

Daimler, Tesla, Uber, Volvo, and Waymo are among the manufacturers working to perfect the software and sensors needed to develop fully automated big rigs. There have been a few demonstration projects, such as Uber’s trucking subsidiary, Otto, arranging a 120-mile beer delivery last year in Colorado.

Tesla also wants to shake up the industry by developing an electric truck with self-driving capabilities. (Read about the Tesla truck.)

McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm, projects that one-third of new trucks could be highly autonomous by 2025. Ever more advanced versions of limited automation seem much closer.

Some companies envision a hybrid system for large trucks and cargo hauling, with human operators needed to drive the trucks onto major highways, where self-driving software would take over. Humans would still keep watch over operations, but they might also catch up on paperwork while the truck steers, accelerates, and brakes itself. And human drivers would need to exit highways, drive on side streets, and perform other duties, such as ensuring that freight gets properly loaded.

More on Trucks & Driving Safety

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, envisions future drivers as more like airline pilots, who often turn their planes over to computers at cruising altitude.

Dave Osiecki, president and CEO of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, which tracks federal regulatory changes, says most people in the industry see self-driving trucks as a reality, with the biggest advances at least five or 10 years off. Limited self-driving systems on interstate highways, however, could come a lot sooner, he says. With automation, Osiecki says, there’s a potential to reduce U.S. highway deaths.

“As the technology starts to mature, that will quickly drop,” he says. But the technology, as it’s being developed, won’t be perfect, Osiecki says. He agrees with industry sentiment that hundreds of people a year might be killed while tens of thousands of lives are saved overall.

Securing America’s Future Energy, a group in Washington, D.C., that tracks potential fuel-saving innovations, says trucking companies are likely to be early adopters of automated-vehicle technology because of how much freight is hauled on interstate highways, which it calls a “more predictable and less complicated driving environment.”

Automation on interstates is easier to develop for quicker bottom-line savings, Osiecki says, compared with the more challenging technical requirements needed for higher levels of automation on side streets and in busy city driving.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.