Written by: Alex Davies
ELON MUSK’S GRAND plan of moving beyond passenger cars to truly revolutionize transportation just got a bit grander. In addition to developing an electric 18-wheeler that Tesla plans to unveil next month, Musk wants to make the thing drive itself.
Tesla is working with Nevada authorities to begin testing a robo-rig prototype at some point in the not-too-distant future. “Our primary goal is the ability to operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the States of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle,” Tesla’s Nasser Zamani told officials with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, according to Reuters.
Assuming Tesla can figure out how to make battery tech work for long-haul trucking (no easy feat), adding autonomy to the equation makes perfect sense. Tesla joins a long list of enterprises working on autonomous long-haul trucking, including Uber, Google spinoff Waymo, Volvo, Daimler, the US Army, and a small horde of startups.
They all see a compelling case for human-free trucking: Big rigs carry 70 percent of all goods shipped across the US, but the industry doesn’t have nearly enough drivers. The American Trucking Associations says the industry needs another 50,000 drivers, and that figure could hit 175,000 by 2024 as more people retire or move on to other careers.
But—and there’s always a but when you’re dealing with leading-edge tech—the technology doesn’t really solve the driver shortage problem or truly pay for itself until you kick the human out of the cab entirely. And that is where Musk’s plan faces its biggest challenge.
Ditching the carbon-based life form altogether remains tricky, because although trucks spend most of their time on the interstate, they do venture into trickier terrain: surface streets, shipping ports, cargo terminals, and the like. And don’t forget the other tasks drivers tend to: hooking up trailers, checking tires, pumping fuel. Try to develop the technology to handle all that stuff, and autonomous trucks go from relatively easily to pretty damned hard.