Semi truck driving with cloudy sky in back.The latest milestone in the development of robotic or autonomous vehicles must undoubtedly have both Smokey and the Bandit pretty inconsolable.

A specially equipped 18-wheeler successfully delivered a load of beer to Colorado Springs, Colorado. When stories like this come out, drivers who read about it must wonder if they’ll have to trade up to an autonomous car soon while unloading their old transport at an auto recycling center. This latest achievement spells some good news here since it involves retrofitting an existing semi rig to do its own cruising. On the other hand, the downside revealed in this recent story is that equipping a vehicle with a brain can cost up to $30,000, so the old ride might be headed for recycling after all.

Delivering Progress

While most of the recent experiments with self-driving vehicles seem focused on cars, delivery transports like taxis and assorted hauling vehicles are attractive targets since they have the potential to save lots of money by ultimately eliminating paid drivers, human error, and lost time for things like sleep, restroom usage, or dining. Delivery rigs can be built from scratch, but in this particular case, a company named Otto, a subsidiary of Uber, decided to design and construct devices that can be attached to standard tractor-trailer rigs to make them autonomous. One concession required for this to work was the use of a fairly new rig that’s outfitted with an automatic transmission that removes the extra complications of operating a manual gear shift. Computer-controlled actuators were installed to operate everything from the steering to brakes to turn signals. The computer making the decisions, in turn, received input from three lidar units placed around the rig, a radar device at the rear scanning for vehicles approaching from behind, and a high-resolution camera mounted over the front windshield. Detailed digitized maps and GPS also combined to help guide the artificial intelligence down the road.

Miniature Adventure

Along with Otto and Uber, Anheuser-Busch supplied the beer and sponsorship for this run which was a legitimate commercial delivery. The state of Colorado was also heavily involved in the endeavor since it involved a greater degree of freedom for the computer brain to act than in previous trial runs. A licensed driver, Walter Martin, was on board, but he actually spent most of the journey in the sleeper compartment behind the driver’s seat. The trip started in Loveland with human workers loading 50,000 cans of Budweiser that were specially designed to commemorate the event. With the human driver doing the steering, the rig headed out to Interstate 25 at Fort Collins for a 120-mile trip that challenged the automated system by taking through the urban traffic of Denver with no human intervention. The quest ended successfully at the delivery site in Colorado Springs. At this point, Walter Martin, once again, took over to guide the truck up to the unloading dock. To help ensure a safe expedition, the truck was escorted by patrol officers from the Colorado State Police on the highway.

Gradual Introductions

This given example of a robotic truck sounds exciting, but it also seems removed from everyday life. The reality, though, is that this stuff is already slowly infiltrating consumer cars and trucks. In fact, most new vehicles on the showroom floor have standard or optional additions like frontal collision detection capability, lane departure warnings, and rear cross-traffic alerts where artificial intelligence collects data through sensors and determines if a threat exists. Other items included in new vehicles allow a car or truck to partially perform some of the driving under certain circumstances. One example is parking assistance where the vehicle performs the steering to maneuver itself into a parking space while the driver applies the brakes and gas pedal. On some cars and trucks, forward collision alerts also permit the vehicle to activate the brakes within a certain speed range instead of relying on the human driver to take action. Because these mechanisms have limited uses, a human driver is still legally required behind the wheel. As computerized autonomy improves at handling all aspects of driving, as with the beer truck, this might not be the case in the future.