Truck pilots of tomorrow

April 4, 2017
Automated vehicle technology takes preparation and an open mind

In the recently published book titled Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman predict that “every disruptive technology has a dark side, and millions of truck drivers and taxi drivers will lose their job” as a result of driverless vehicles.  Dr. Bharat Balasubramanian, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies, University of Alabama, and keynote speaker on May 1 at NPTC’s Annual Conference, offers an alternative perspective.

“The focus should be on enormous safety gains, not job loss. Current discussions on autonomous driving revolve too much on an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” he says. “Loss of conventional truck driving jobs will happen—in stages over a long period of time. No one needs to fear this technology; it requires preparation and an open mind. It’s not like millions of truck drivers will suddenly lose their livelihoods overnight. 

“Many truck driving jobs will be altered for the better, less boring, less onerous and dangerous, but infinitely more safe,” Dr. Balasubramanian continues. “The true advantage of deploying advanced driver assistance systems lie in their ability to dramatically reduce the number of accidents and fatalities.”

He notes that increasing safety and the levels of autonomous driving are two facets of an identical technology set using advanced sensors, actuators, and electronic control units with slightly differing software. The Society of Automotive Engineers has established six levels of autonomous driving categories.

In the following description, Balasubramanian has added a layman’s interpretation of the levels:

Level 0—no automation: the full-time performance by the human driver in all aspects of the dynamic driving tasks: all human faculties are “on” including feet, hands, eyes, and brain 

Level 1—driver assistance: the driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration,  with human driver performing all remaining tasks: feet are off

Level 2—partial automation: the driving mode-specific execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/deceleration, with human driver performing all remaining tasks: hands are off

Level 3—conditional automation: the driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, with human driver responding to a request to intervene:  eyes are off 

Level 4—high automation: the driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene: brain is off

Level 5—full automation: the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver: body is out

Depending on road and traffic complexities, Balasubramanian says that level 4 driving with high automation on parts of U.S. interstates from entry to exit could be achieved by 2022, even though in other scenarios, the vehicle may only drive in level 2 automation mode, like in the city.

For private fleet drivers whose jobs involve more multiple stops, shorter distances in their runs, and nondriving functions, including unloading freight at customer locations and face-to-face customer service interaction equating up to 35-40% of their work day, the availability of this technology deployed within level 2 to level 4 modes could be a significant game changer in perceived quality of job improvements for veteran drivers.

Relief from the burdensome monotony of slow-moving congested traffic or bad weather conditions and heightened safety margins in avoiding collisions with other road users are just a few of the improvements drivers can look forward to in their job. This could well justify changing the job title as well.  Dr. Balasubramanian suggests ‘truck pilot.’   

About the Author

Gary Petty

Gary Petty has more than three decades of experience as a CEO of national trade associations in the trucking industry. Since 2001, he has served as president and CEO of the National Private Truck Council, the national trade association founded in 1939, representing the private motor carrier industry. Petty is the Private Fleet Editor and columnist for FleetOwner, where he writes monthly articles about successful managers and business models in the private fleet market.

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