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Changing with the trucks

Dec. 7, 2016
Autonomous trucks’ impact will be deep, unexpected

I’ve said it before—autonomous trucks are the flying cars of our age. Whether they’re crossing the Hoover Dam to a thunderous soundtrack or delivering beer across the Rockies, the national press just can’t get enough of them even if it doesn’t really understand the complexities. Unlike flying cars, though, we’re going to see self-driving trucks in one form or another in the not-too-distant future.

For one thing, the foundational vehicle technology already exists. Blind spot monitoring, smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and similar technologies are already on the market as advanced safety systems, but in reality they are the first building blocks of autonomous vehicles.  And the second crucial component—high-speed wireless communications—is pretty much a done deal as well. 

That’s not to say you’ll be sending trucks out on the road without drivers anytime soon.  There are still some significant barriers to be breached, especially in the areas of regulation and infrastructure. But they are coming first as extensions of current advanced safety systems that automate most active driver functions under certain conditions, but still require a driver in the seat to take over if necessary. 

The second phase in the march to highly automated trucks (HATs) is a combination of vehicle and communications technologies that allow complete autonomous operation in limited and controlled environments like sections of Interstates. HATs let the driver get out from behind the wheel, even to take a nap in the sleeper. And again, we’ve already seen real-world demonstrations of these systems, so practical applications in the near term seem like a sure thing.

Fully autonomous trucks with no driver at all are exponentially more complicated and by most estimates still off in the distant future.

No matter when they get here, or in what form, trucks with even semi-autonomous capabilities are going to change the industry. Late last month, industry think tank American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) released a report that offers some pointed insights on just what those changes might be.  “Identifying Autonomous Vehicle Technology Impacts on the Trucking Industry” attempts to identify how it will affect the top 10 industry issues identified by its annual survey of fleet executives, which most recently heavily focused on driver-related issues.

In some instances, the report raises questions rather than provides speculative answers. For example, HOS rules are meant to improve safety by limiting driver worktime to prevent fatigue. How will semi-autonomous trucks that require drivers to be behind the wheel but relieves them of many stressful duties change driver fatigue? And what about HATs? If the driver is in the bunk or otherwise not behind the wheel, how do you calculate on-duty and rest breaks? And then there’s the sleeper berth provision. Clearly, we’re going to need a complete rethinking of HOS based on a new driver environment, one that brings some flexibility without compromising safety.

Then there’s the driver shortage.  Even HATs require drivers, so autonomous trucks won’t eliminate the need for drivers despite what some of the general media outlets speculate. However, ATRI believes that changing the driver’s environment and creating a high-tech image for trucking could very well make it a more attractive job for the younger people it isn’t attracting today.  Theoretically, more productive autonomous trucks would reduce the number of trucks needed to move our freight, thereby also reducing the number of drivers needed.

Other issues considered include CSA Basics reporting, driver health, and even truck parking. I can’t do ATRI’s analysis full justice in this short space, so I urge you get a copy of the full 45-page report from the institute. It’s a  useful reality check amid all the breathless general media coverage.   

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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