Trucks at Work

Will drivers accept autonomous trucks?

So I’m here at the Texas Motor Speedway for a few days at a conference aimed at determining the viability of automated truck and autonomous vehicles.

Now, those two terms – “automated trucking” and “autonomous vehicles” – are not the same, cautioned Stephan Keese (at right), senior partner at global consulting firm Roland Berger.

The first refers to relieving certain responsibilities when behind the wheel but not all of them, while the second refers to a truck completely capable of driving itself without a human driver in any environment, he said.

Yet as with many things in life, one must first learn to “walk” before one can “run,” and so where autonomous trucks are concerned, a certain level of “semi-autonomy” must be established first – a situation where the truck drives itself only some of the time, while a human remains behind the wheel at all times.

That’s the tough part, Keese stressed. “The big challenge here – and we have no answer for it yet – is what does a driver do sitting behind the wheel for 10 hours not driving, yet remaining ready to intervene at a moment’s notice,” he emphasized. “That’s almost more stressful than driving.”

Keese added that studies show it takes a human being about 90 seconds to fully “re-engage” in an activity after being unfocused. A truck driver can grab the steering wheel in 2.5 seconds, but to become fully “plugged in” to a specific driving situation takes over a minute and a half, according to Roland Berger’s findings – far too much lag time.

Yet Skip Yeakel with Volvo Trucks – someone I’ve talked to about trucking technology issues for many years – stressed that truck drivers are more than willing to adopt new technologies and adapt to new truck operating characteristics; as long as it is demonstrated that it works.

Take automated manual transmissions (AMT) – a technology Berger’s Keese believes will be the virtual standard gearbox in the U.S. trucking market by 2020.

“Five years if you asked a truck driver if he’d give up his manual gearbox for an automated one, he’d have said ‘no way ever,’” Yeakel noted. “Now our I-Shift [AMT] is the gearbox spec’d for most of our truck orders. The reason is that we showed them it works and once they tried it out and experienced the benefits, drivers accepted it.”

Will that same process help drive acceptance of automated truck technology? Only time will tell.

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