Panel1 Photo: Sean Kilcarr/American Trucker
Dean Newell (left) and Dave Manning (center) talk autonomous trucks with NATSO CEO and president Lisa Mullings (right).

Executives: Trucks likely will never be driverless

While trucks of the future will be more automated, to improve safety and efficiency, they will still need drivers.

NASHVILLE, TN. Two leading for-hire trucking executives believe that commercial vehicles will never be truly “driverless,” except in only rare instances, as many of the daily tasks performed by commercial trucks will require a human to complete.

“I don’t ever think we’ll see them on the highway,” explained Dean Newell, vice president of safety and training for Maverick Transportation, during a panel discussion here at NATSO Connect; the annual truck stop operator’s convention.

“We’ll them in certain applications, like mining trucks and things like that. But as for over-the-road operation I don’t think we’ll see it in my lifetime,” Newell stressed. “They will be more autonomous, but not driverless; we will still need people in there.”

Dave Manning, president of TCW Inc. and the currently chairman of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), echoes Newell’s point that “autonomous will not equal driverless” in the commercial vehicle world.

“Drivers just perform too much other vital work aside from driving,” he explained, citing tarping down flatbed loads, handling intermodal container exchanges, conducting vehicle safety inspections, and managing hazardous material shipments.

“They do way more than simply refuel and drive trucks,” Manning said. “And when does technology work 100% of the time? All systems have flaws and a driver needs to be there to go ‘old school’ in case a problem with the technology occurs.”

Newell added that sometimes safety systems such as electronic stability control (ESC) will trigger an alarm if the truck hits a pothole a certain way; thus drivers need to be on hand to separate the real from the false alarms.

Yet both Newell and Manning agreed that trucks will gradually become more autonomous, especially as greater improvements in safety systems occur.

“We want to the technology to take control to prevent an accident, for example,” Manning noted. “We want technology to intercede if it keeps the driver, the cargo, and the general public safer.”

He added that the advent of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology will improve that capability further, allowing commercial vehicles to “see” around corners and adapt to road conditions based on data fed to it by fellow vehicles and the roadway itself.

Yet Newell said none of those improvements eliminate the need for a human in the cab – and he drew a parallel with the airline industry to emphasize his point.

“Planes today largely fly themselves up in the air – the pilots are not touching the controls. But we still have two on them there,” he said. “Ask yourself, if you got on a plane, looked left, and saw no one there, would you still stay on the plane?”

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