THE DRIVER SHORTAGE is driving a serious look at self-driving trucks, just not in the way many people assume.
Despite persistent rumors of the demise of the long-haul truck driver in the coming age of automated transport, that time is decades away—and many of the advances between now and then will, in fact, make driving a much more desirable job.
Paradoxically, “the human factor” will be a critical element as trucks become smarter and smarter.
“We’ve done a lot of end-user research to come to the conclusion that autonomous vehicles will enable recruiting drivers,” says Sandeep Kar, global vice president for Frost & Sullivan and an expert in heavy truck systems and technologies.
“[Trucking] will need to entice young drivers by giving them a work environment that is less stressful, less disenfranchised—that enables them to connect to the world outside. They want to be connected to their friends, to Facebook or whatever it is: You have to give them some time during their work cycle where they relax, sit back, and watch their iPad.”
Currently, just 11% of the truck driver workforce in the U.S. is under 30 years old, Kar notes.
“This is a huge red flag,” he says. “If we want to bet on the U.S. economy, we have to attract young drivers. On the other side, the health, wellness, and well-being of the aging drivers is becoming a major driver retention factor.”
As a result, truck makers are more focused than ever on “inside the cab,” based on the growth of investment on things like seating systems, visibility, steering, and the driver interface.
“It’s not by accident that we’re here to talk about automated mobility. It is by design; it is by reality,” Kar says.
Autonomous truck technology, he explains, will enhance driver performance, improve fuel efficiency, improve safety, and improve compliance.
The catch, however, is that fleets will question the need to invest in the suite of technologies needed to achieve Level 3 autonomy (a truck that has the ability to take over the driving in certain situations, typically long highway stretches) if they also still have to pay drivers. But the substantial benefits to the supply chain and trucking operations that connectivity and big data will provide should mitigate those concerns.
Level 4 automation means no driver in the cab, and it’s “way out there,” Kar notes, pointing to a Frost & Sullivan market analysis that projects none of these trucks will be on the roads of North America in 2025 and just 300 or so in 2035. And the projection for Level 3 technology is only 3,160 trucks, although that total surges to almost 41,000 by 2035.
But the substantial market growth comes with Level 2 autonomy, or combined technologies that relieve the driver of control of each, which will hit 109,000 trucks in North America in 2025 and more than 200,000 in 2035.
Piece by piece
Many truck operators might not realize it, but from antilock brakes to the latest efforts toward so-called fully autonomous trucks, they’re looking at stepping stones on the same path. Commercial truck safety technologies today share a lot of DNA and in the active sense, center on different levels and periods of computer control.
How will these technologies change trucking and improve roadway safety? That depends. Executives at two top truck safety technology firms say it will depend on the level of fleet investment in advanced safety systems.
And while the autonomous or self-driving truck concept receives plenty of attention, it’s truck safety that has truly advanced—piece by piece—and more is in store. The latest safety technologies being added to trucks “are the stepping stones—these are sensors that can determine the environment external to the truck—and that’s what you’ll need for more highly automated vehicles,” says Alan Korn, director of advanced brake system integration at Meritor Wabco.
Korn is quick to cut off the use of the word autonomous when it comes to commercial trucks. “To me, autonomous means a vehicle without a steering wheel or any pedals whatsoever,” he explains. “There’s no human intervention other than telling the system where you want to go, and it takes you there. So I like to say highly automated vehicles” when describing how safety systems will advance in real-world terms over the next decade.
“A highly automated vehicle will be able to take control independent of the driver in certain circumstances, and it can automatically control longitudinally, which is the speed of the vehicle, and laterally, which is the steering,” Korn explains. Initially, when future safety systems assume that control, it’s likely going to require low-risk circumstances such as a clear day on the highway with minimal congestion, he says.
“The driver’s not going to be in the sleeper berth; he’s going to be in the driver’s seat,” notes Korn. “The driver will be there mainly for backup, almost like on a plane. They have autopilot now on all planes, but you still have pilots there so they can quickly take control or handle some of the more complicated processes like landing and taking off.
“Similarly, when it’s safe, the truck driver will be able to cede control to the system itself,” Korn continues. “I think you’re going to start to see that on heavy trucks, maybe not in 2016 but in the mid-2020s.”
Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Controls Group, says the first mandate of antilock braking systems (ABS) for trucks and trailers in the 1990s was a key moment on the road to advanced safety systems. “That gave us two things: a brain and an input,” he says.
“Now, we had an ECU (electronic control unit) that could accept information from sensors—wheel speed sensors in this case—and when we determined that a wheel was going to lock up, we could release the brake,” Andersky continues. From that point, truck safety technology has become more sophisticated by adding different types of sensors and doing more with the information they provide.
“When we think about where things will go in the future, we focus on four I’s: information, intelligence, intervention and insight,” he says, explaining the thinking at Bendix. Sensors add information; intelligence is determining an appropriate response to sensor input. Intervention is safety system actions taken, such as automatically changing the truck’s speed or direction to mitigate a potential problem, and insight is analysis of safety data gathered to show trends and action items for the fleet.
Of the four I’s, “when we look at how things are going to grow, what really becomes important is the information aspect,” Andersky says. “More information into the system continues to allow us to do more things.”
More sensors on top of ABS—e.g., a lateral acceleration sensor, yaw rate sensor, and steering angle sensor—brought safety technology to what’s known as full electronic stability control, or ESC. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has mandated ESC systems for most new heavy trucks starting in August 2017 and additional commercial vehicles in following years.
Putting these systems together is already feasible, but finding suitable applications for on-highway trucking will require some operational adjustments, as well as regulatory clearance. Where does the technology go from here?
“Truck platooning is really the first step in the AV process,” suggests Frost & Sullivan’s Kar, referring to a system that allows a lead truck to virtually take control of a following truck’s acceleration and braking so the pair can travel close together at highway speeds. “Drivers could take two-hour turns driving at the head of a platoon then switch with another driver. It allows them to disengage with driving for set periods, and that would probably help attract more entrants to the profession. That’s why we see a possible solid return for this technology.”
Earlier this year, Daimler Trucks put on a public demonstration of the company’s latest connectivity technologies with a live truck platoon running down the A52 Autobahn in daytime traffic. An extension of Daimler Trucks’ Highway Pilot semi-autonomous driving system, Highway Pilot Connect allowed three tractor-trailers to couple into a platoon and switch control of the two following trucks to autonomous steering, acceleration and braking.
The demonstration included having a car cut between the two semi-autonomous trucks, which reacted by lengthening the following distance from 15 meters to 50 meters until the car left that lane. At that point, the trucks adjusted following distances to 15 meters again without any input from the drivers.
Daimler Trucks North America unveiled its Inspiration autonomous truck a year ago in Nevada, and the state is actively encouraging AV testing.
And Silicon Valley-based Peloton Technology already has nearly 20,000 highway platoon test miles in the books. The challenge has been to find the sweet spot between the Peloton system’s capabilities and what drivers are comfortable with, explains CEO Josh Switkes.
Based on the research results thus far, that’s about 40 ft., or more than four times what the technology is capable of. But when the trailing truck is only 10 ft. away from the lead truck, the driver doesn’t see the road and is uncomfortable, Switkes explains.
At 20 ft. “it starts to get comfortable,” and by 40 ft. drivers report that it wasn’t as close as they expected, he adds.
“A lot of people hear 40 ft. and they think you’re staring at a wall, but if you ride in the trucks, you’ll see it’s not like that,” Switkes says. “There is a truck in front, but you can see off to the side just fine.”
The company is now moving toward production of its system.
“I think the fleet and industry interest has gone better than I originally expected. People always talk about trucking as being a slow-moving industry, but what we’ve seen is it can move quickly if it is interested in something,” Switkes explains.
As to building a “critical mass” where there are enough Peloton-equipped trucks on the road so drivers readily will be able to find platooning partners, Switkes suggests it will happen quickly in densely traveled truck corridors.
He also notes that a lot of fleets operate on a regional basis, and that’s where the early opportunities will be. Similarly, Switkes anticipates fleets will learn to dispatch their trucks in a way to assure more opportunities to platoon.
“Fleets today have no incentive to send trucks out at the same time. A lot of them could, with trucks going from hub to hub—but they actually try to keep them apart,” Switkes says. “Certain fleets have external reasons for their dispatch timing, but I think most fleets choose an arbitrary timing, coordinate services and try to follow that. But there often is no real need for that sort of schedule.”
Long-haul trucking is the holy grail for any vehicle technology. Therefore, the market is there to justify the R&D investments truck makers and their suppliers are making in these advanced systems, Kar explains.
Kar puts the current cost of a suite of the technologies at $30,000, but that cost will go down over the next 10 years with wider adoption. However, the cost of the development of proprietary algorithms and the IT needed to support and secure them will become greater.
How can self-driving trucks save fleets money while potentially opening up new avenues of profit? Answering those questions may be the key to making autonomous vehicles a reality in the commercial truck world.
“It’s a challenge to capture the true return on investment offered by autonomous trucks,” says Michael Rofman, senior manager at consulting and tax advisory firm WeiserMazars LLP.
Rofman thinks the trucking industry can reasonably expect to see autonomous trucks on the road by the year 2035, though the advent of such vehicles won’t lessen the need for drivers.
“We’ve had autopilot in airplanes for 25 to 30 years now, but we still have two pilots in the plane,” he says. “So autonomous trucks won’t be completely free from humans.”
But in the opinion of several experts, insurance savings will be the key to making AVs acceptable in trucking.
“Insurance is the key and will be watched closely,” says Dan Murray, vice president of research for the American Trucking Research Institute, during a meeting last December on automated trucks. “The economics are huge in this area. So if AV technology offers a demonstrable safety benefit, the insurance industry will champion it.” The insurance industry will be hesitant, however, if benefits are not quickly realized.
Kar offers his expert overview of “the future truck.”
“The future truck is going to be a green truck; it will save fuel and have a smaller environmental footprint,” he says. “The future truck will be a safe truck. It will save the life of the driver and people around it. It will be a connected truck, connected to the world outside, and the world outside will be connected to this truck.
“When you add these three together, it’s safe to assume the future truck will be a smart truck. The question that it begs is, are we smart enough to embrace the future?”