Understanding The 5 Levels of Autonomous Trucking


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With increasing numbers of automated vehicle technologies being tested and appearing on the market, the trucking industry is at a crossroads. “Automated features” to the layperson often conjure images of futuristic vehicles propelled independent of human interaction. This, however, is not the case, and automation occurs on a spectrum.

The question then becomes, what level of automation to adopt in commercial vehicles and when to adopt them, especially when current national policies and regulations for the autonomous trucking market remain absent. The industry thus faces new questions about the future of automation.  Becoming informed about new, cutting-edge technologies and state-to-state regulations can give industry experts a strategic advantage as we look to the longer-term future and strategy of shippers.


The Five Levels Of Transportation Automation

As more sophisticated vehicle technologies continue to emerge, the opportunities for automated truck options range widely, from automating a few select features to completely self-driving with no human intervention. These abilities can be divided into five levels, all of which have differing implications for the industry if implemented.

The Five Levels of Commercial Trucking Autonomy

The 5 levels of autonomous driving in the trucking industry include:

  1. Driver Assistance—one function controlled automatically (i.e. cruise control)
  2. Partial Automation—both steering and acceleration/deceleration are automated, with the driver ready to take vehicle control
  3. Conditional Automation—all safety critical functions are automated, but the driver is present for certain traffic and environmental conditions
  4. High Automation—automated to perform all safety-critical functions and roadway conditions for a full trip (driver still present)
  5. Full Automation—expected to perform equal to a human driver, in all scenarios and conditions (driver not present)

Levels 1 and 2 include small shifts from driver-controlled variables to automated ones, and in many cases can be seen in both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucking on the road today. Level 1, for instance, can include dynamic cruise control, or lane assist features—but these technologies can only be implemented individually at this level. Level 2 involves two primary control functions working together. Leading-edge companies such as Peloton and Tesla have already implemented these levels of autonomation in fleets or prototypes.

Level 3 is the level at which automation starts to become more intensive, as more consistent highway driving is completely automated. The driver can choose which automated features to employ – having ultimate control of the vehicle – with most miles driven autonomously. Instances, where driver intervention is required, include subpar weather events that limit connectivity and visibility, and more variable urban and city driving.

Level 4 automation is similar to Level 3 in that the driver is still present in the vehicle, but in this level, the vehicle would be operating fully on its own in all scenarios. Most companies are jumping Level 3 and striving for Level 4, including Waymo who is testing Level 4 technology in their own business but hasn’t yet moved into the commercial sphere. TuSimple, a company founded in 2015, is another market leader that is testing automated vehicles at the higher levels of autonomation. TuSimple operates 200 domestic and 500 global trucks with millions of miles of testing so far in 2019. Level 5 is perhaps furthest in the future, as a driver would not be present, and the vehicle would be fully-automated.

Level 5 automation is more prevalent overseas, specifically in Sweden where two companies – Einride and Volvo – are testing Level 5 technology in controlled, low speed, short distance environments. Autonomous vehicle technology isn’t limited to more famously known market-disrupting companies like Peloton, Tesla, and TuSimple, however. Companies typically regarded as more legacy traditional truck manufacturers, such as Daimler, Peterbilt, and Volvo, are also working toward a future that leverages automated technology.

Autonomous vehicle technology isn’t limited to more famously known market-disrupting companies like Peloton, Tesla, and TuSimple, however. Companies typically regarded as more legacy traditional truck manufacturers, such as Daimler, Peterbilt, and Volvo, are also working toward a future that leverages automated technology.

Opportunities For Safety And Sustainability

Increasing levels of automation in trucking bring new possibilities for safety and efficiency because they remove the most variable element of heavy-duty truck driving—human error.

Automated vehicles at Levels 4 and 5 include technology that enhances operational functionality—translating into significantly reduced safety hazards on the road. Automated trucks at these levels could include abilities to improve truck stability (preventing skidding or rollovers) and have faster reaction times and stopping features than most humans reacting to external stimuli.

Technology at Levels 2 and 3, on the other hand, focuses on increasing aerodynamics, saving fuel, and locating ideal speeds for efficiency. Some technologies include navigation software that allows drivers to locate more fuel-efficient routes. Others optimize operating functions which can make automation as good as, if not better than, the most efficient driver.

Peloton is currently pioneering a platooning program designed with these goals in mind, capitalizing on the art of drafting to save on fuel costs. In testing, The Peloton System resulted in 7 percent overall fuel efficiency savings, with the lead truck in a platoon saving 4.5 percent on diesel fuel and the following truck saving 10 percent.

Automation systems like those at Peloton seem to be paving the way toward a more sustainable approach to trucking. Its 2018 report, Driverless? Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker, the U.C Berkley Labor Center estimated that the industry will see about $35 billion in fuel efficiency gains and an overall total of $168 billion saved industry-wide.

McKinsey & Company also noted that automated trucks will also bring changes to the efficiency of transportation supply chains, as shipping and production schedules will be tied less to the availability of drivers.

Implications Of Adopting Automated Trucking Technology

adopting automated trucking technology levels

Moving toward an autonomous truck market is not without its challenges. While the U.S. is increasingly seeing Level 2 technologies emerge, moving into Level 3 technologies will be the biggest leap to date.

Social attitudes about automated vehicles add barriers to the development or adoption of technology. Fear of an unknown technology rises due to risks associated with technology failure, which are exacerbated by news stories covering accidents involving autonomous vehicles. This media coverage can contribute to a negative perception of the technology among consumers.

What if the technology doesn’t perform as expected? Real-world performance is unknown.

In a predictable environment—such as a road shared with other autonomous vehicles—the technology holds true. But how will the technology perform when surrounded by human behavior? How will the introduction of unpredictable decision making ultimately impact the safety of other drivers on the road? If systems fail, what safety features are in place to prevent compounded risks?

The role of the driver is also in question, as the driver’s responsibilities will change, and eventually, the demographics of the driver pool will evolve. These factors generate fears about the potential loss of driver jobs. Some sources, however, say that increased use of automated trucks can help alleviate the significant shortage of drivers seen throughout 2018 and persisting in 2019.

National Standards On Autonomous Trucking

Beyond these potential issues, legislation allowing testing of autonomous vehicles differs widely among states. Currently, no federal standard on autonomous trucking technology exists, so every state varies in its acceptance of autonomy. Several states have no proposed legislation for automated vehicles, while states such as Nevada, California, Texas, and Arizona are hotbeds for testing of automated trucks.


Restrictive policies in select states, and the absence of federal policy can thus slow the pace at which autonomous trucking is developed and implemented operationally. While some Level 1 and 2 technologies have already been integrated into several truck offerings, the advancement of vehicles to higher levels of automation is slowed. This is in part due to differences in, or absences of, the policies between states.

Shippers utilize over-the-road trucking solutions that span hundreds of miles across numerous states. If automated vehicles are a part of a shipper’s strategic roadmap, finding routes that remain within legal jurisdiction in relation to autonomous trucks is currently difficult. As more states—or the federal government—enact legislation that allows automated trucking testing, the solution becomes more viable in practice.

What Can Shippers Expect?

The attitudes toward and standards for autonomous trucking remain in flux. Yet little doubt remains that these autonomous variables will play an increasingly significant role in the future of the industry. Early adopters seeking an increase in safety, efficiency, and sustainability continue to emerge. Ultimately, being informed, open to changes, and taking an active role in the policy realm puts shippers in an advantageous position, as getting in front of these changes allows for more agile supply chains.

Breakthrough’s team is committed to keeping up with the latest news and research on these ever-evolving technologies. For further insights on the impact of autonomous trucking technology on efficiency, safety, and supply chain management, contact us and check out our blog.

Post updated from its original post date 2/22/2019.

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