Transitioning from human-driven cars to self-driving cars won’t happen with a snap of your fingers. It will be the final note in a long, complex, multi-movement symphony. Anyone who says we’re already there either has no clue, or is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Sure, there are some vehicles testing in closed environments that operate autonomously, but that’s not the same as functioning in the real-world.
We speak here of autonomous (and self-driving cars) as requiring no human driver. Anything short of this is semi-autonomous. On the way to full automation, which, according to the government, is Level 5 autonomy, we will have Level 4, or high automation. Level 4 is really full automation, but only under certain conditions and in specific environments. In other conditions and environments, a driver is required.
Level 4, or high automation, is achievable. A number of carmakers promise Level 4 cars in the next two or three years, but there’s more to it than that. Appropriate environments for autonomous vehicles (AVs) must be established. These would include inner-city and highway corridors specifically designated as autonomous routes. Such autonomous friendly corridors (AFC), reports Trucknews.com, are already under consideration.
Commercial vs. Retail
Despite Level 4 consumer vehicles being ready for sale within the next few years, experts expect the first Level 4 AVs to be commercial: Public-transit buses, taxi cabs, long-haul trucks and so forth. This is because they’re already basically route-specific. Buses and, to some extent, long-haul trucks go from point A to point B. There may be stops in between, but they follow fairly established routes. If a city has 20 square blocks set up as an AFC, Level 4 and, theoretically, Level 5 vehicles would operate safely there. Likewise, established highway AFCs would provide safe routes for Level 5 trucks.
For long-haul trucks, highway AFCs make the most sense, particularly as Level 4 semis first emerge.
Canadian Automated Vehicles Center of Excellence (CAVOE) is one of the driving forces, along with the Central North American Trade Corridor Association (CNATCA), tackling the issue of AFCs. The core idea is to establish AFCs between popular shipping destinations punctuated by hubs, or land ports, every 200-or-so miles. These hubs would serve as refueling stops, as well as shipment drop points for last-mile delivery services to fulfill local deliveries.
North to South
One potential AFC under consideration, which could well be the first such route, is Highway 83. Running from the Texas/Mexico border between Laredo and McAllen northward through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas all the way into Manitoba, Canada, it seems tailor-made for an AFC.
For trucks to operate safely, AFCs would probably need to provide some vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, but even this is achievable for specified dedicated corridors. How rapidly that might happen is an unknown. Although there is no set end date for the development of Level 4 autonomous trucks, expert sources in the Trucknews.com story speculated that such trucks could be hauling on U.S. highways as soon as 2019 or 2020. Is that really possible? Well, a big AV story in 2016 was a human-supervised autonomous truck hauling 50,000 beers 120 miles between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
What it means to you: Completely self-driving cars and trucks may take another 20 years before seeing widespread use on our streets, but we can expect to see some Level 4 commercial AV applications well before that. A lot of smart people are working on it. It’s only a matter of time.