• Perspectives

June 7, 2023

There is No Road to Autonomous Trucking Without Safety

Dr. David G. Steel
Dr. David Steel

By Dr. David Steel, executive director of UL Standards & Engagement

The promise of autonomous trucks has become reality — in select locations, under specific circumstances. Long, uninterrupted stretches of highway are the predictable and structured environment where autonomous vehicles perform best. Variables, however, are part of driving. 
Accounting for those variables will take autonomous trucking from good-on-paper to good-on-the-road. And it is very good on paper, judging by the investment dollars that have flowed to autonomous trucking companies, the increased demand for shipping resulting from an e-commerce boom only accelerated by the pandemic, and the potential to help address the driver shortage that has long plagued the trucking industry. 
But when the rubber hits the road, there are more challenges. There are autonomous trucks running routes now, primarily where variables like weather, complexity, and unpredictability can be reduced.  
Gatik operates routes for Walmart in Arkansas that are short-range, fixed, and repeated. The trucks travel at speeds up to 45 miles per hour and use multiple right turns to mitigate the risks of left turns, which are less predictable. And now, after 18 months of running the trucks with a safety driver in place, the trucks are fully driverless.  
At present, 22 states allow autonomous vehicles. In some states, like Texas, the regulatory environment accommodates autonomous vehicles well, as do the wide open stretches of road. In others, concerns are leading to restrictions. California currently has a proposed bill that would require a human driver to be present in autonomous trucks.  
A human driver was present when Kodiak Robotics, in partnership with U.S. Xpress, showed the potential of autonomous trucking during a demonstration last March. Over five days, an autonomous eighteen-wheeler hauled loads back and forth from Dallas to Atlanta, traveling more than 6,300 miles and delivering eight loads. It would have taken a traditional truck at least 10 days to do the same. Human drivers did take control multiple times during the demonstration.   
Ultimately, it’s not politics or the regulatory environment that will pave the way for widespread use of autonomous trucks. It’s safety. Safety will enable progress. Overlooking safety will stall it, setting innovation back years.  
The mission of UL Standards & Engagement is working for a safer world, and for 120 years, the organization has put forward safety standards that influence how products and systems are made and operated — including autonomous vehicles. The UL standard that covers autonomous vehicles, UL 4600, was just updated to include trucks for the first time.  
The standard contains safety principles and processes to evaluate autonomous vehicles — in short, it offers framework that leads designers of autonomous systems through the required thought process to ensure all possible complications have been considered. What are the safety questions that need to be considered in design? How do you think beyond design and for the lifecycle of the vehicle? Can quality and consistency be assured across manufacturers? The answers may not be readily available yet. But it is important to ask them now to avoid consequences later.  
All our safety standards are developed through a consensus process that gathers input from manufacturers, academia, government, nonprofits, and industry groups. For the most recent update to include autonomous trucks, Kodiak Robotics and Gatik sat on the technical committee that informs and votes on the standard. They were joined by experts from companies like The Mitre Corporation and Locomation, as well as leaders from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. 
Estimates vary on when autonomous trucking will become widespread, but there is little doubt that there will be a steady increase over the next decade — and some experts say completely autonomous trucks will be on the road at scale in the 2030s.  
Born out of innovation following the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, our organization helped define a safer environment for residential and commercial electrification. Now, at a new dawn of innovation, our role is the same: to build trust and enable progress by providing for greater safety.