Trucking may soon involve convoys of electric, semi-autonomous big rigs driving cross country.
Tesla’s much-anticipated debut of an electric semi-truck on Thursday night has spurred debate about the future of trucking, especially how advances in autonomous driving technology could make many truck driving jobs obsolete. Tesla’s new semi-truck, which is not expected to be manufactured for another two years, has some autonomous driving capabilities, although it still requires a human driver.
But, one Intel-backed tech startup has an interesting prediction about trucking’s future. Peloton Technology has developed a system that would allow for “platooning,” in which multiple trucks follow closely behind a lead truck to take advantage of reduced wind resistance while using sensors and radar technology to synchronize their speeds and routes. (Fortune wrote about Peloton in April, when the company was closing a $60 million funding round.) Peloton predicts that platooning would save companies money by improving trucks’ fuel efficiency while also cutting down on emissions.
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Wired pointed out on Friday that, even in situations like the one outlined by Peloton, truck driving is unlikely to be completely autonomous in the near future. Peloton’s semi-autonomous platoon system would still require a driver at the wheel of the lead truck, while even those trucks following behind would need drivers on board, although they would be free to focus their attention on other work.
Meanwhile, the industry will continue to ponder what innovations like Tesla’s new electric semi-truck—which is pitched as having a range of 500 miles on a single charge while carrying 80,000 pounds—mean for an industry that employs more than 3 million truck drivers.
Tesla’s planned truck will feature Enhanced Autopilot, the company’s newest semi-autonomous driving technology that is used in its passenger cars. It allows vehicles to stay within a driving lane, match speed to traffic conditions, and even change lanes without a driver’s help.