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Is our future autonomous?

May 3, 2017
Self-driving vehicles may be reality sooner than we think

Let me just start by saying that to be writing this column is quite an honor for me. It also goes without saying that I am following in the footsteps of greatness here—and that’s no understatement for anyone who’s known Jim Mele, my boss and mentor, these last 17 years.

That’s not idle talk, because Jim really nailed the important trucking issues of the day in column after column during his time guiding Fleet Owner. He also rightfully noted that change really remains the only constant in this industry. And right now the pace of change is really starting to pick up where one of the biggest future issues affecting trucking is concerned: autonomous vehicles.

They’ve gone from science fiction plot device to active prototype in a scant few years, with component supplier Bosch and Daimler AG now determined to begin introducing “fully automated” and “completely driverless” vehicles on urban roads by 2020—just three years from now.

We know that autonomous trucks aren’t far behind, though where, when, and under what conditions they will be deployed remains a hotly debated topic.

For example, Thomas Balzer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Assn., believes that while we’ll probably see Level 4-capable cars and trucks within the next 10 to 15 years, we won’t see truly “driverless” vehicles for at least 50 years just because of societal acceptance difficulties.

Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Assns., has publicly put that “driverless” vehicle timeline closer to 20 to 25 years and for some of the same reasons.

“Autonomous vehicles have gone from science fiction plot device to active prototype.”

- Sean Kilcarr, Fleet Owner Editor-in-chief

However, Robert Hooper Jr., CEO of Atlantic Logistics, who is also an economist by training, told me autonomous vehicles will be a reality far sooner than any of us expect—especially in trucking—simply because of the cost advantages. Simply put, the cost of auto­nomous technology—a cost estimated to be $25,000 at most, according to Frost & Sullivan’s research—is far, far below that of even the lowest truck driver pay rate, which he said ranges between $35,000 and $125,000 a year.

Then you combine that cost savings with an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that states some 94% of all vehicle crashes are caused by human error.

And those crashes cost a lot of money. NHTSA estimated back in 2014 that vehicle crashes generate nearly $871 billion in economic loss and societal harm every year in the United States.  

That figure is based on an analysis of 32,999 fatalities, 3.9 million non-­fatal injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles resulting from crashes that occurred in 2010. In line with that research, the agency found that crashes caused by drunk drivers were responsible for $199 billion, or 23%, of the overall societal harm, while crashes involving a distracted driver were responsible for $129 billion, or 15%, of the overall societal harm. Obviously, if humans aren’t doing the driving, such costs could rapidly disappear.

“Glitches” will sadly occur with any new technology. Take the fatal crash that occurred last May between a Tesla Model S going fast with the car’s “auto­pilot” engaged and a tractor trailer that crossed a Florida highway in front of it. (Apparently, neither the vehicle’s sensor-linked controls nor the driver made any attempt to stop.)

But that fatal collision didn’t bring autonomous vehicle testing to a halt. Indeed, 11 states plus Washington, DC, all passed legislation in recent years related to autonomous vehicle operation, with two states  doing so via executive orders.

I think it’s only a matter of time until autonomous vehicles start to reach our roads in significant numbers. Remember, Bosch and Daimler are aiming for 2020 as we speak. That’ll spark significant change to how we transport both ourselves and our goods around this great nation of ours.  

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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