LOUISVILLE, KY. Is the self-driving truck the “flying car” of the 21st century – a much-talked about but ultimately unrealized development – or is it a true near-term technological breakthrough that will transform the global trucking industry?
Jim Mele, editor-in-chief for Fleet Owner magazine, led a panel discussion regarding that topic during the Fleet Forum sessions held at this year’s Mid America Trucking Show.
The panel included:
- Susan Alt, senior VP for public affairs with Volvo Group North America, who detailed the legal and regulatory hurdles facing self-driving trucks;
- Dr. Wilfried Achenbach, senior VP-engineering & technology for Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), who addressed the technical issues facing autonomous vehicles;
- Sandeep Kar, global director of automotive and transportation research at Frost & Sullivan, who provide thoughts on the potential price tag for self-driving trucks and how they might impact drivers.
Alt noted that five U.S. states are already drafting laws regarding self0driving vehicles in general, which could pose a problem for trucking due to the interstate nature of freight operations.
Setting down rules for self-driving vehicles will require the coordination of several federal agencies, including:
- The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which will be focused on the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) needs;
- The Federal Communications Commission dealing with the 5.9GHz radio band reserved for truck communication protocols;
- The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) handling how drivers interact with autonomous vehicles;
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is directly responsible for the safety of such vehicles and the self-guiding technology operation them.
Alt added that “significant’ legal hurdles remain, especially regarding protection of autonomous vehicle technology against cyber-attacks and who/what will be held liable in the case of a crash of technological malfunction: the driver, the software programmer, the vehicle OEM or the communication channel provider?
DTNA’s Achenbach thinks self-driving trucks are still a “distant reality” to a large degree simply because of the complex decision-making required to safety operate vehicles in traffic.
“Normal driving requires an operator to make 10 million decisions a year, but for a commercial vehicle operator, that rises to 100 million decisions per year,” he stressed. “Not only is the technology still very expensive, but the real challenge are technical standards we will need to make it work and acceptance of self-driving systems by society.”
Volvo’s Alt noted that “all it will take is one catastrophic event” involving autonomous vehicle technology to create significant deployment delays.
Achenbach agreed with that assessment.
“Every driver makes mistakes now and again – and unfortunately some of those mistakes can lead to injuries and even fatalities,” he said. “What will we do when a system causes a fatality? What will happen?”
The price tag of self-driving technology is also another big hurdle, with Frost & Sullivan estimating that just the technology needed to govern autonomous vehicles will add around $18,000 to the base cost of a commercial truck. “In terms of retail pricing, that may mean an additional $35,000 to $50,000,” Kar noted.
Yet he stressed that adding self-driving systems to commercial vehicles could “free up” drivers to perform other tasks, such as freight invoicing, or even allow them to take rest breaks with the vehicle in motion.
“The challenge will be how to package the benefits for the driver,” he explained. “Self-driving technology is coming whether we like it or not. But it will need to have regulations in place to protect the interests of OEMs, fleet and drivers. This is the biggest issue.”