Skip to main content


ZF Friedrichshafen AG

A Roadmap to Autonomous Trucks

A Roadmap to Autonomous Trucks

The technology and steps to regulate fully autonomous trucks will evolve bit by bit over the coming years.

By David Cullen

The road to autonomous trucks is a long and winding one. How it’s navigated will ride on everything from how rapidly the technology advances and how quickly it is embraced by truck operators and other motorists to how it will work in practical terms and how many regulations will impact its adoption.

The general media is wont to drum up the coming of “self-driving” or “driverless” trucks. Those adjectives make for grabby headlines that stir fears of “robot trucks.” The real goal is quite different: to deploy rationally based, highly engineered and integrated systems and software on trucks and roadways that will vastly increase safety, greatly increase delivery efficiency, and even cut fuel costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

A Constellation of Systems

It’s best to think of all this not as the development of a single new vehicle archetype but as a constellation of advanced systems that will automate one or more aspects of driving a truck. Even once full vehicle automation – picture a truck without a cab – is practically attained and legally allowed on roadways, many trucks will only be partially automated due to cost and/or operational factors.

This is why the truck builders and suppliers now engaged in this work, as well as the federal government, don’t talk about trucks without drivers; they talk about developing and releasing an array of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Some ADAS technology is already on many heavy-duty trucks, such as collision mitigation systems that take control of braking and steering as needed when system software determines the truck driver is not reacting quickly enough to a potential crash on the highway.

The federal government recognizes the importance of ADAS development to the point that it is actively promoting adoption of this technology as it stands now, even as it works to formulate policies for how the eventual full automaton of commercial vehicles will be regulated.

Performance Categories with Potential

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are four general performance categories of ADAS that have the most potential to prevent crashes, injuries and fatalities.

Braking. This includes automatic emergency braking (AEB) and adaptive cruise control (ACC) systems. “AEB systems detect when a truck is in danger of striking the vehicle in front of it and braking automatically if needed. ACC helps with acceleration and/or braking to maintain a prescribed distance between it and the vehicle in front. Some systems can come to a stop and continue.”

Steering. Includes lane-keep assist, lane centering and adaptive steering control, “all of which help drivers maintain proper vehicle control and traffic spacing.”

Warning. Includes lane departure warning, forward collision warning and blind spot warning. “These systems help drivers by warning them of encroaching vehicles, unintentional moves or lane drifting.”

Monitoring. Includes driver-facing and road-facing cameras for training, and camera-based mirror systems for enhancing a driver’s field of view. “These systems help industry stakeholders provide driver feedback and improve driver performance.”

All of these systems are now available for spec’ing on new trucks, so think of them as building blocks toward higher levels of autonomous truck operation.

Levels of Automation

Further out, much is already in play. That’s why manufacturers and industry groups often refer to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Levels of Driving Automation Recommended Practice J3016 to describe where they are now and where they plan to get to with this technology. The levels were first laid out in 2014 and have been updated since.

The SAE levels are usually presented visually (see chart), but here is the gist:

  • Level 0 means no driving automation.
  • Levels 1 and 2 cover the presence of “driver support features” deployed while a person is driving.
  • With Levels 3 through 5, no one is driving when automated driving features are engaged.
  • And, specific to Level 5, the technology can drive the vehicle on all road types under all conditions. In other words, full automation is achieved.

As for the regulatory environment that will eventually rule all driverless truck development in the U.S., some states now have laws on the books that enable limited use of even fully autonomous trucks on certain highways, primarily to enable research and development as well as road testing. While that patchwork of rules will grow, ultimately it will become secondary to yet-to-be-promulgated federal rules and regulations regarding the design and operation of autonomous trucks and the roadways on which they will operate.

Rules of the Road Ahead

So, at some point, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will mandate standards that truck builders will have to follow; the Federal Highway Administration will formulate rules on roadway design and technology to accommodate autonomous trucks; and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will issue rules to update federal safety standards to cover autonomous trucks and the CDL drivers operating them, to one degree or another.

The FMCSA is already engaged in the rulemaking process for its purview over autonomous truck development. For example, in May 2019, the agency issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – also known as a “pre-rule” – that requested public comment about motor carrier safety regulations that “may need to be updated, modified, or eliminated to facilitate the safe introduction of automated driving systems equipped commercial motor vehicles onto our nation’s roadways.”

Another Step

Earlier this year, the FMCSA took another step forward, announcing it would soon issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to amend certain Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations “to ensure the safe introduction of automated driving systems (ADS)-equipped commercial motor vehicles” onto U.S. roadways.

The agency said its proposed changes to truck operation, inspection, repair and maintenance regulations would “prioritize safety and security, promote innovation, foster a consistent regulatory approach to ADS-equipped CMVs, and recognize the difference between human operators and ADS.” The projected publication date for this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is this November.

In the meantime, major truck builders and their technology partners the world over continue apace to climb that SAE ladder toward a safer and more efficient future for commercial vehicles.

About the Author: David Cullen is an award-winning journalist who specializes in covering the trucking industry. Based in Connecticut, he writes for several business publications.


David Cullen

David Cullen is an award-winning journalist who specializes in covering the trucking industry. Based in Connecticut, he writes for several business publications.