While the trucking industry has embraced some autonomous vehicle technology, carriers won’t soon start hauling freight with self-driving semitrailers like the one that hauled beer on a Colorado interstate last fall.
In Arkansas, the infrastructure is not in place to allow for self-driving trucks, but a form of the technology, known as platooning, could be implemented in the state if legislation allowed for it.
The Arkansas Trucking Association (ATA) wants the legislation to allow for semitrailer platooning. Once engaged, the technology wirelessly syncs the lead truck to the one following, allowing the trucks to maintain a specific speed or following distance based on their load weight and to assist the drivers, such as automatically applying a truck’s brakes. Goals of platooning are improved safety and fuel economy.
Legislation would be required to modify the minimum distance restriction between to vehicles, which is 200 feet, ATA President Shannon Newton said. Platooning would allow two trucks “to talk to one another” and travel together much more closely.
“Platooning is not prohibited by law,” she said.
Elements of platooning are similar to drafting, which is when one truck follows closely behind another to minimize wind drag, improving fuel economy. “Drafting is really not legal,” and it would likely remain illegal with the new legislation.
The ATA and a technology vendor recently met with the Arkansas Highway Police, a division of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, to discuss possible legislation that would provide for an exception to the minimum following distance requirement “but only when certain safety and technical requirements have been met,” said Danny Straessle, public information officer for the highway department.
“We will be watching with great interest that which is put forth [in the legislature] by the Arkansas Trucking Association. We are waiting for additional information from the vendor so we can evaluate the proposed legislation and thus determine if we have any issues or opposition,” he said.
The plan is to have legislation approved this year, since legislators won’t meet again for two years, Newton said. With the legislation in place, carriers could test the technology in the state. Several carriers have shown interest in the technology, including J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Wal-Mart Stores and FedEx Freight, which has planned routes.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 35,092 people died on U.S. roads in 2015, and 94% of crashes “can be tied to a human choice or error.” Automated vehicle technology “could dramatically decrease the number of crashes tied to human choices and behavior.” The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) “is also encouraged about the potential for [automated vehicle technology] to use other complementary senor technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure capabilities to improve system performance.”
Platooning would use the previous technology, and Peloton Technology, based in Mountain View, Calif., is a provider. Its Peloton System offers a combined fuel savings of 7%, at 4.5% for the lead truck and 10% for the following truck, according to the company’s website.
“Drivers choose when to platoon and always retain primary control of their own trucks. They work together to save fuel and manage the changing environment.”
While vehicle automation technology such as platooning will assist the driver, some debate remains over whether it will impact the driver shortage. Newton doesn’t expect it will impact the shortage and won’t lead to the need for fewer drivers. But the technology could attract more drivers to the industry because it could allow for more drivers to qualify to drive commercially. She compared the use of autonomous vehicle technology in the trucking industry to the airline industry and how each airplane still has two pilots even though they use autopilot to fly an airplane.
Automation “is leveling the competitive landscape across the globe,” and the “ramifications for labor are monumental,” according to Stifel transportation analyst John G. Larkin. “Taken alone, autonomous trucks operating on the interstate highway system would likely eliminate the persistently challenging driver shortage and might destroy highway to rail intermodal conversion economics. Taken together with double 53s, triple 28s, platooning and/or other highly productive vehicle combinations and technologies, autonomous trucks could be the next transformational driver leading to a sizeable reduction in the ratio of logistics costs to GDP.”
The NHTSA defines vehicle automation technology in the following six levels.
• Level 0, no automation: driver is in complete control of the vehicle.
• Level 1, automated system can “sometimes assist” the driver to handle “some parts” of driving.
• Level 2, the system can do some of the driving, but the driver does the rest and must watch the “driving environment.”
• Level 3, the system can drive and monitor “the driving environment in some instances,” but the driver must be available to take control of the vehicle if needed.
• Level 4, the system can drive and “monitor the driving environment” without the driver needing to take control. However, the system can only operate in “certain environments and under certain conditions.”
• Level 5, the system performs all the driving tasks that a driver could.
Platooning meets the definition of level-one vehicle automation, but this past fall, Otto Motors, which is based in Canada and owned by Uber, used self-driving trucks to perform level-three vehicle automation tasks. In October, Otto and Anheuser-Busch teamed up to deliver 51,744 cans of beer using autonomous technology as “the world’s first commercial shipment by self-driving truck,” according to a news release. A driver let the computer take control of the truck and watched from its sleeper berth as it “hauled a fully loaded trailer of Budweiser beer more than 120 miles on I-25 from Fort Collins, Colo., through Denver, to Colorado Springs.” In November, an Otto self-driving truck operated a similar task in Ohio.
Before he met a team of Otto engineers, Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the nonprofit Western States Trucking Association (WSTA), was skeptical of the technology. Just say self-driving trucks in trucking circles, “and you are likely to get an earful about how this technology should never replace having a human driver behind the wheel,” he wrote. But after seeing a self-driving truck in operation, Rajkovacz said he is no longer a skeptic. The concept, he wrote, is “nearing reality today. Although technological and regulatory hurdles still lie ahead, they will be solved.”
Rep. Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, chairman of the public transportation committee in the House and previously committee vice chair, has yet to see legislation regarding autonomous vehicles, but he expects a law to be in place before it would be allowed in the state. Sen. Eddie Williams, R-Cabot, also was unaware of any legislation regarding automated vehicles, and said a conversation about it is one he “wouldn’t even dream of having” three to five years ago. Williams, who worked nearly 40 years for Union Pacific Railroad, and Holcomb were co-chairs of an intermodal transportation and commerce task force that looked into the intermodal segment in the state.
The vision of Otto and Anheuser-Busch for the technology includes reducing roadway fatalities, decreasing emissions and “enhancing truck utilization and providing a sustainable solution for the driver shortage that continues to put pressure on drivers to work long hours at the risk of safe driving,” according to a news release. “One major opportunity for Otto’s technology is that drivers will be able to rest during long stretches of highway, and perhaps even catch up on sleep. That begs the question of whether the driver is ‘on-duty’ with respect to hours of service laws while they are resting.”
The hours of service regulation limits truck drivers to 11-hours of driving per day after 10 consecutive hours off duty, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Also, drivers cannot drive after the 14th consecutive hour after coming on duty, and they must take a 30-minute break from driving at least every eight hours. A driver is also limited to driving 60 hours per week or 70 hours over eight consecutive days.
On Jan. 16, the DOT’s 25-member automation committee met for the first time “to immediately begin work on some of the most pressing and relevant matters facing transportation today, including the development and deployment of automated vehicles,” according to a news release. Committee member Chris Spear, who is president and CEO of American Trucking Associations, said the transportation industry “must embrace technology for the betterment of safety, the environment, productivity, but also to do it thoughtfully in ways that do not impeded our employment base, particularly in the trucking sector,” according to Transport Topics, a publication of the trade organization.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Jan. 23, 2017 edition of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.