Trucks at Work

Autonomous vehicles, emissions, and trucking

It’s not every day that I interview someone who cites an Arthur C. Clarke novel to illustrate the trend line for autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Yet that’s exactly what Margo Oge, the former director of the office of transportation and air quality with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), did; highlighting a passage from one of Clarke’s lesser known science fiction books, Imperial Earth.

Oge illustrated a moment when the main character, Duncan Makenzie, returns to Earth from the colony on Saturn’s moon Titan to celebrate the 500th anniversary of U.S. independence. On his way down to Earth, he asks about whether people still drive cars.

“If you are crazy enough to drive, you’ll be put in jail,” comes the response.

Oge stressed that she while didn’t think driving would ever be considered illegal in such fashion, she did believe that with the rapid rise of AV technology, driving may very well be considered at some point a waste of time – especially in the freight world.

She makes just such point in her new book by crafting a series of scenarios in the opening pages showing how “driverless vehicles” would alter how humans use vehicles for transportation – particularly where trucks are concerned.

In her trucking example, the driver of an autonomous tractor hauling motorcycle parts in two trailers between Frankfurt and Leipzig, Germany, coves the 344 mile trip in four hours on a dedicated truck-only highway at speeds of 85 mph. Most of the time, the driver listens to Karl May audiobooks (isn't that an obscure author to pick!) via a cloud computer link, and enjoys a short nap, only taking the wheel when the truck signals a heavy rain warning.

“This is kind of a no brainer, just like autopilot in aircraft,” she told me. “We also forget how much freight gets delivered by truck all over the world. So AV technology can help improve the ability to manage the driving cycle but improve highway efficiency too.”

First and foremost, she thinks the main benefit from AVs will be reducing accidents – particularly if vehicles large and small can “talk” to each other and thus better maintain safe distances.

She added in a self-confessional moment that removing “aggressive driving” from the roadway picture is one major safety benefit from witching to AVs.

“I am definitely an aggressive driver,” Oge (at left) told me. “And I also know that driving habits affect vehicle fuel economy up to 30%. So not only would AV systems make driving safety, they’d save on fuel as well. There is no question in my mind that we’d save fuel with such systems.”

Additionally, when connected to real-time traffic data and digital maps, AVs could automatically adjust their routes to avoid congestion, reducing unnecessary engine idling in stop-and-go traffic – reducing not only fuel consumption but exhaust emissions as well.

Yet Oge also noted that one of the biggest hurdles athwart wider adoption of AVs is the liability question: who is responsible if an AV gets into a crash?

“That’s the main question: how do regulators deal with that legal issue?” she told me.

Indeed, that is a quite a big issue to hurdle to my mind. Can the trucking industry and the broader U.S. motoring public be convinced to make such a leap? Methinks the jury will be out for some time on that thorny topic.

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