Skip to main content

The First Driverless Civilian Vehicles Might Not Be Cars

Driverless technologies, such as Nissan's Autonomous LEAF or the infamous Google Cars might be what we think of when we think autonomous vehicles; but the reality is likely to be very different. Royal is now marketing the first driverless construction zone truck.

We often think of driverless cars being the next great technology to come from Detroit or Tokyo, yet the technology has been in use for a few years now in other applications away from our roads and highways. The military, including a Florida contractor we met at the Detroit Auto Show this year, has started to use driverless or autonomous trucks for convoys in dangerous areas globally. These trucks don't require the armor or protection of a normal troop-manned vehicle since there are no humans to protect in the rig. Instead, they are driven via satellite or on their own similar to how most drone aircraft operate. The military has experimented with autonomous vehicle technologies for some time.

Similarly, the highway construction and maintenance industry has been looking at autonomous and semi-autonomous work trucks. The truck most commonly involved in an accident are called attenuators. These are rolling safety barriers often used at temporary or moving work sites on roads and highways. They are also the first line of defense for many sites, which means they are the most likely to be involved in an accident and their occupants are the most likely to be injured. Even when manned and driven by people, these trucks are credited with saving work crew lives every year. Vehicles on the road often miss the warning lights and signs and slam into the trucks, which are built to be temporary, moving barriers at roving work zones where things like pothole patching and road striping are being done. Sadly, the workers driving the attenuators are still often injured or killed in accidents.

Royal Truck & Equipment wants to change that and has completed testing of an attenuator truck equipped to drive itself. It has the ability to dodge or stop for hazards, including misplaced highway barrels, pedestrians, and workers. The truck has been tested on closed avenues and roadways and is now ready for the real world. The Pennsylvania-based company plans to "go live" with their attenuator in Florida later this year.

Built in conjunction with Micro Systems, a Florida firm that supplies unmanned vehicles to the military, the new Royal attenuator will begin operations later this year as part of a pilot program run by the Florida Transportation Department. If the trucks prove themselves, they'll become commercially available nationally shortly thereafter.