October 24, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Editorial: Mechanical Evolution Marches On

This Editorial appears in the Oct. 24 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

We have recently participated in a lot of discussion and activity about autonomous and platoon trucking, and while some of it has an exhilarating, almost science fiction feel to it — especially the in-person demonstrations — there also are aspects of it that are, well, commonplace.

As is the case with life in general, all of us are surrounded by automation and technology, and the capacities of these systems and their numbers are accelerating rapidly. Heavy-duty trucks are no exception.

Automation is making the driving of trucks for a living less grim and demanding. It’s still not an easy job, but the increasing prevalence of active safety systems for braking, lane departure and following distance means drivers are more likely to avoid accidents and return home safely.

For a useful primer, we recommend the LiveOnWeb archive at that includes our Oct. 19 presentation of a “Master Class on Autonomous Trucking.” This was a follow-up to our panel discussion on the same topic at the recent Management Conference & Exhibition of American Trucking Associations.

For starters, we learned that “autonomous” is not precisely the right word. It suggests Class 8 trucks without drivers, and that’s 20 to 30 years down the road, or maybe more.

Driver assistance through automation is the real issue. It’s as mundane as turn signals that cancel automatically when a turn is complete.

Automated manual transmissions, adaptive cruise control and anti-rollover systems are more complex yet not at all exotic.

Using a camera-radar combination for emergency braking gets a bit of a “wow,” but automakers are touting this on TV. Car manufacturers are marketing the equivalent of guardian angels that can save lives if a driver’s mind wanders.

Broad-based development of these systems can only make them cheaper, and is there anyone who has ever sat behind a wheel that at some point didn’t plead for a second chance?

So far, most of these systems have been put into use without government mandates, but rather on consumer demand, a fairly happy practice.

Two-truck platoons, with drivers steering in both vehicles will come next, but two trucks could become three or four, and there might be less and less that following drivers will need to do.

A system comparable to autopilot for jet aircraft has been floated for longhaul solo drivers, not to displace them but to make the journey less draining.

It’s a brave new world that has such vehicles in it.