How Will Autonomy Affect the Trucking Industry?

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Automation will someday have a big impact on the $700 billion trucking industry, though opinions differ on how fast change will occur, and whether it’ll be good or bad for people in the industry. The stakes are substantial – nearly three quarters of all goods in the U.S. are shipped over the road by 3.5 million full- and part-time drivers. Ride.Tech spoke to experts representing drivers and manufacturers to get their opinions on self-driving technology.

First, know that many companies, young and old, are trying to develop self-driving trucks. This includes Google’s Waymo and Tesla, startups named Einride, Embark and TuSimple, as well as more established manufacturers, such as Volvo and Daimler.

Sam Loesche, the legislative and policy representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said that viable self-driving technology that could replace human truckers is likely more than two decades away, but said apprehension over the eventual development of autonomous trucks could keep younger drivers away from the field. “That’s the point of technology… to replace people,” he said.

At the moment, the industry actually needs more drivers, not less. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) says the nation was short nearly 61,000 drivers at the end of 2018, up from a deficit of 51,000 drivers the year earlier. “If conditions don’t change substantively, our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years,” stated the ATA’s chief Economist, Bob Costello in a release. The bulk of the driver shortage is for “over-the-road” drivers operating long distances in heavy-duty tractor trailers, according to a report the ATA issued last month. The trade group does not cite anxiety over automation for the lack of drivers, but rather competition from other blue-collar careers and an aging driver population. Its report notes the average age of an over-the-road driver is 46, and the average new driver being trained to operate a big rig is 35 years-old. It also states that increases in freight volume necessitate more drivers.

Self-Driving Trucks
A fleet of black self-driving electric semi trucks driving on highway. Image (c) Getty

Self driving trucks are coming. Opinions vary on when.

The ATA itself sees autonomous vehicles as a positive, in the long (long) term. “While we are still decades away from truly driverless Class 8 (over 33,000 pounds) trucks running on the highway as a normal part of the industry; driver-assist technologies in heavy duty tractor trailers could eventually have a positive impact on the driver shortage by making the job less stressful, and the more sophisticated technology may also attract younger individuals to truck driving,” it stated in its report on the driver shortage.

Loesche noted that navigating dense urban areas causes problems for even small autonomous vehicles, while “an 80,000-pound truck will be exponentially more difficult.”

A spokesman for Einride agrees. “The human brain is a wonderful thing and difficult to replace completely,” he said. “Robo-cars able to navigate in complex environments like city centers without human supervision – that will not happen in the short term. Probably not in a decade… We believe that the first real-world applications for transporting goods with autonomous vehicles will come outside city centers, in less complex traffic situations, on clearly defined routes between – for example warehouses, distribution centers and stores… Highways involve more traffic but are still relatively low-complexity, so medium- to long-haul flows may not be that far away. Fully autonomous vehicles inside cities is probably something we’ll have to wait a number of years for.”

Photo: Einride

The Einride spokesman said self-driving technology has the potential to make road freight transport both safe and more sustainable. Not just for the environment, but for the driver, as well. “We expect humans to have an important role in trucking in the foreseeable future, but there will be a transition from drivers to operators – monitoring and when necessary remote controlling fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles. This is a safer and more convenient job where operators can go home to their families at night… You will need a truck driver’s license to be an operator of autonomous trucks, so that will not change. But of course, you’ll need other skills as well. We believe a lot of operators will be former truck drivers, with an “add-on” training.”

Daimler Trucks plans to have highly automated trucks on the road within a decade, according to a spokesman for its Autonomous Technology Group. These would meet Level 4 standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). A Level 4 vehicle is able to operate on its own in most instances, but would not completely eliminate the need for human intervention in all circumstances (full autonomy would be Level 5… and we’re not there yet, as noted above).

Robert Brown, Head of Government Relations and Public Affairs for TuSimple said Level 5 autonomy is not on the company’s current road map, but he expects the startup to have Level 4 systems available by 2023 or 2024. At that point, TuSimple trucks would be able to drive themselves over long distances on the highway between distribution centers, but not in dense urban centers. “The trucks will be able to run 24 hours a day, but not in downtown settings,” he said.

“A young person going into trucking will be able to retire in trucking,” Brown said. “What (truck drivers) do is invaluable.” By taking on some of the longer, interstate routes, autonomous systems will make life better for truckers who currently spend much of their time away from home, he said.

Autonomous trucks
Autonomous trucks at a warehouse. Image (c) Getty

Some autonomy is already here.

“Benefits from automated technologies in heavy-duty trucks will be realized in as little as a few months time,” the Daimler spokesman said. He added that SAE Level 2 technology (which means some systems involved with steering, acceleration and/or braking are partially automated) will soon be standard on the Freightliner Cascadia, which is most popular large tractor trailer on the road, according to the company. “Numerous studies make clear the safety benefits of these systems for passenger cars and their drivers, and the benefits for Class 8 truck and their drivers will be similar. The introduction of these advanced safety systems provide a benefit for the industry, for drivers and for society as a whole… In addition to the safety benefits (Level 4 autonomy) can provide, it will also free the driver to focus on some tasks while leaving automation to take care of others.”

Loesche, from the Teamsters, is less enthralled with autonomous systems. He said the industry has too many problems with existing driver-assist technology for it to have confidence in more advanced autonomous systems. For instance, he noted that automatic braking systems have misread snow, heavy rain, and overhead signs as obstacles and brought trucks to needless and potentially dangerous sudden stops. “Software needs to be vetted by independent third parties before its put on the road,” he said.

Mike Motherwell, the operations manager of Jersey Tractor Trailer Training, a truck driving school in Lyndhurst, N.J., isn’t terribly nervous about self-driving technology. He estimates it will take autonomous systems 35 or 40 years to compete with a human driver and quipped “if you can’t stop a computer from getting a virus, what’s stopping a truck from getting it?”

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