Experts: Autonomous technology to help truck drivers, not replace them; driverless technology a ‘myth’

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,167 views 

Picture this: a self-driving truck pulling a fully loaded trailer, no cab, no driver and a computer controlling its every movement as it reaches its destination.

At first look, a self-driving truck might seem like a wise investment. Drivers account for about one-third of long-haul trucking companies’ operating costs, said Steve Sashihara, founder and CEO of Princeton Consultants, which provides consulting services to the transportation industry. Also, compared to human drivers, self-driving trucks aren’t restricted by the hours of service rule, which limits a truck’s use. And nighttime driving can lead to driver fatigue.

“Whereas the robots, I think, would be happy to drive at night and have better speeds and utilization,” Sashihara said.

But wait. Driverless technologies are a myth, said Sean McNally, vice president of public affairs and press secretary for trade organization American Trucking Associations. In a statement, in response to questions on the impacts of self-driving trucks on the trucking industry, McNally noted that “for the near term, and even significantly out into the future, we aren’t talking about driverless technologies — that’s a myth — what we’re really talking about (is) driver assist technologies.”

When asked to clarify why driverless technology is a myth, McNally explained that “true level-five autonomous technology” would require “much more widespread adoption of these technologies — across the entire vehicle fleet, not just the trucks.” Also, federal regulations from multiple agencies would “require certain types of cargo be monitored or controlled by a driver at all times, and frankly, most shippers are likely uncomfortable with no one watching their goods. Even in tests where the driver is out of the seat, he or she is still in the cab, and we expect that to continue to be the case for some time.”

But what remains unclear is whether self-driving trucks would replace truck drivers or if the technology would alleviate the growing problem of a truck driver shortage over the long term. While the shortage is expected to increase, especially as the economy improves, and the average age of truck drivers rises, the human concern to be replaced by technology is real, even if it might not happen soon.

According to a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center, half of Americans believe the automation of jobs hurts U.S. workers, while 42% think it helps them. And in a 2015 survey, 65% of Americans believe in the next 50 years that robots and computers will do much of the work now done by humans. However, 80% of Americans think their jobs will exist in their current forms over the same period, according to Pew Research Center.

Over the next 10 years, ATA chief economist Bob Costello expects the industry will need 89,000 drivers annually, or about 890,000 drivers, which represents about 25% of the existing driver workforce. The average age of truck drivers is 49, and they are closer to retirement than the start of their career. To complicate matters, the United States is close to reaching full employment, which will make it harder to find drivers, and the driver turnover rate is expected to rise this year after falling to between 80% and 84% in 2016.

But Costello said technology will lead to more layoffs than competition from inexpensive foreign labor, citing that U.S. factory output has risen 75% since 1990 but sector employment has fallen 31% in the same period. He said automation will benefit the trucking industry because those products will need to be delivered, and the factory workers who have been laid off can find jobs as drivers.

When asked what it would mean if truck drivers in Arkansas were replaced by self-driving trucks, Mervin Jebaraj, assistant director for the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, was uncertain.

“It’s something we haven’t dealt with,” Jebaraj said.

Also uncertain is what the displaced drivers would do. Arkansas has 33,400 truck drivers, earning an average of $38,870 annually, and the occupation has the third highest employment of any occupation in the state, behind retail salespeople and cashiers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state has the second highest concentration of truck drivers in the United States.

According to a 2015 NPR article, which based its numbers on the U.S. Census Bureau, the truck driver occupation was the most common in the state, and has been since 1990. In 1988, secretary was the most common job after it had been truck driver between 1982 and 1986. In 1980, it was machine operator, and in 1978, it was farmer. The truck driver occupation has been the most common job in a majority of states over the past two decades.

While truck drivers have not be impacted by globalization, they aren’t immune to the effects of automation, Jebaraj said. He expects the first disruption in the industry would happen to long-haul trucking as a result of automation. Sashihara sees the technology for self-driving trucks being developed in three phases, with the second phase as the next intermodal. In this phase, self-driving trucks would be used to make the long-haul runs on interstates, and human drivers would pick up the trailer for the last leg or final mile of the delivery. The third phase would be self-driving trucks hauling the freight from beginning to end.

“That’s why I think when most people are trying to imagine this, that’s where they’re getting hung up,” Sashihara said. “They’re saying, ‘Look, have you ever seen a truck back into a dock? Have you seen how many docks are in a crowded city? Can a robot really do that?’ The nice thing about option two is you don’t have to worry about that.”

Sashihara also foresees that self-driving trucks would eliminate the need for sleeper berths and other amenities addressing driver comforts that increase the cost of trucks. He explained how Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services was a leader when it switched to using trucks with day-cabs, instead of more expensive ones with sleeper berths, for its intermodal trucks.

At a recent conference, Chris Spear, president of American Trucking Associations, said the industry should embrace technology to improve safety and efficiency and wasn’t concerned that automated driving technology would displace drivers. The industry must understand the technology is there to assist, not replace the driver.

“We’re already seeing precursor systems like collision warning, stability control, lane departure systems make their way into vehicles, so the types of technologies currently being development in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are the next logical step,” McNally said.

The technology being developed for trucks would be similar to the autopilot used in the commercial airline industry, McNally said.

“A human driver navigates the intricacies of pickup and delivery and urban driving; while switching on an autonomous system for long stretches of highway driving — similar to a pilot who handles takeoff and landing, but turns on autopilot at cruising altitude.”

Recall Otto Motors’ semi-autonomous delivery of Budweiser beer for Anheuser-Busch in October. A human driver handled the driving while not on Interstate 25 in Colorado, but while on I-25, he switched the truck into driverless mode and watched from the sleeper berth as a computer drove the truck more than 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The technology used was developed by Otto Motors, a startup established in January 2016 by a lead on Google’s team who is developing self-driving vehicles. Uber purchased Canada-based Otto in August. Otto’s technology allows it to be installed on an existing semitrailer, but it’s not a fully self-driving truck, or a level-five autonomous vehicle, as it still requires a human driver to take over control for some portions of the drive.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines a level-five vehicle automation as a system that performs all the driving tasks that a driver could. The other levels, which range between zero and five, are defined by how much driving the computer would handle, instead of a human driver.

Spear expects autonomous vehicle technology won’t see widespread use for at least 20 to 25 years, but trucking would lead the way toward automation. In January, the DOT established a committee on deploying automated vehicles, and Spear serves on the 25-member committee.

“As we speak, the framework for that future is being written by lawmakers, regulators, truck makers and technology companies and the trucking industry. It is important that trucking is at the table and helping to shape those laws and rules so they can have the most beneficial impact on the safety and efficiency of the trucking industry and our economy,” McNally said.