Can Self-Driving Trucks Go the Distance in Mexico?

The southern border might stop autonomous vehicles in their tracks. 

 

Driverless vehicles have dominated the trucking conversation for, well, ever. Since GM first debuted its radio-controlled electromagnetic wonder car at the 1939 New York World’s fair, our culture has been obsessed with the idea of letting technology take the wheel.

…And with the idea of replacing nearly 3.5 million truckers across the country with advanced AI.

There’s been a lot of talk (and we do mean a lot of talk) about how driverless fleets are coming to revolutionize the road. And with each successive article heralding the end times for truckers, it’s beginning to feel like the future of freight will have no one in the driver’s seat.

But there’s one, multi-billion-dollar pothole on the perceived road to success:

Mexico.

In all the conversations about driverless trucks, there are precious few words for our 3rd largest trading partner, and how driverless trucks will be able to service billions of dollars’ worth of cross-border freight annually. Let’s take a closer look at the state of self-driving cars in Mexico.

 

What are self-driving trucks?

Self-driving/driverless cars are just that – cars that drive themselves without a human behind the wheel. Similarly, self-driving/driverless trucks are (you guessed it) trucks that haul freight without a driver. It’s self-explanatory, even if the science behind these innovations isn’t.

 

How do self-driving trucks work?

Math, science, and some complex imaging technology. First things first, not all self-driving vehicles are created equal, and not all “autonomous” vehicles are fully autonomous.

The U.S Department of Transportation currently defines six levels of autonomy in vehicles. The levels range from Level 0 (fully manual) to Level 5 (fully autonomous). Technology like Lexus’s Lane Keep Assist clocks in at a Level 2 (partial automation) while Audi’s A8L with its AI Remote Parking Pilot claims level 3 (conditional automation) status.

In those instances, the tech is all about imaging and detection. High definition cameras scan for road signs, 360-degree LiDAR systems use laser pulses to find obstacles and judge distances, and ultrasonic sensors within a car’s wheels detect curbs via sound waves.

But at higher levels of automation (Like Level 4 and 5) where a driver may not be present, the car needs to be a whole lot smarter. Whether it’s through an abundance of algorithms or the use of machine learning, a fully autonomous vehicle must also be equipped with the processing power it needs to collect sensory data and make split-second driving decisions. It also needs to do all the navigation, which means having access to high-quality 3D maps of every road it would need to traverse to determine routing.

 

Are self-driving trucks in use?

In a very limited capacity, yes. Self-driving startup Embark is already hauling Frigidaire smart fridges on milk runs between along the I-10 freeway, from El Paso, Texas, to Palm Springs, California. Waymo (in partnership with Google) is testing a self-driving big rig pilot in Georgia where autonomous trucks are making routine deliveries to Google’s Atlanta-based data centers. And of course Land O Lakes recently publicized their 2,800-mile, coast-to-coast “(mostly) without a driver” butter delivery.

It is worth noting those buzzy runs were chaperoned by humans, often sitting idle in the driver seat. But it’s also worth noting the aforementioned Waymo just raised a staggering $2.25 billion to expand their business.

 

Could self-driving trucks deliver cross-border freight into Mexico?

There are some legal and technical concerns that would need to be addressed first.

Self-driving cars are hard enough to legislate domestically, let alone internationally. For one truck to make a direct delivery it would need to be roadworthy in both the US and Mexico, and it would need to get through not one, but two sets of customs.  Currently there is no federal consensus in the United States regarding the legality of autonomous vehicles, which could mean driver-less trucks would be forced to route around jurisdictions that don’t deem them roadworthy.

There’s also the problem of the Vienna Convention on Road traffic (signed by Mexico, but not the United States) which decrees that a driver must always be in control and responsible for the behavior of a vehicle in traffic. Even with the updates in the UNECE, which allow for some measure of automation, the amendment still demands that all autonomous functions include driver override.

But let’s assume our hypothetical driverless truck is above board, and that it is legal for a truck to drive itself from origin to destination. There are still additional technical concerns involved with border crossings that aren’t present in your standard delivery. Borders are confusing places at the best of times, and they often experience delays and exceptions. Our self-driving truck would have to take orders from border officials to navigate docking, waiting, and passing multiple inspections. All without a driver.

And what if the load was rejected? Or the paperwork was wrong? How would a customs official communicate to an empty truck that it needed to turn right back around? It’s hard to say. As we previously mentioned, there aren’t any laws on the books. Even if a truck could drive itself all the way to the border, human intervention seems inevitable unless there are some major legislative changes.

But, assuming the truck is deemed up to snuff and granted entry – how will it navigate the back roads of Mexico? In the US, one third of all roadways are unpaved. In Mexico that number is over half. While MIT is working on off-road technology, it still can’t tackle mountain roads, and the reality is that most autonomous cars require that roads be well-marked and mapped in advanced before they can be driven without a driver. A tall order on either side of the border.

 

What does this mean for cross-border trucking?

If you ask the American Trucking Association, it means a lot of good things for the industry. CEO Chris Spear envisions a future where truckers act as supervisors to auto-piloted trucks, kicking back in the cab and only taking over to handle loading and unloading. A potentially viable answer to the cross-border conundrum.

Meanwhile fully autonomous (meaning level 4 and above) trucks could address the ongoing domestic trucker shortage, which is poised to double in the next decade.

Of course, we’re a pretty long way off from our self-driving future. And that runway only extends when you consider the logistical requirements of crossing any borders.

 

The Road Ahead

Long story short, we’ve got a long way to go.