Automation Raises Hopes, Fears In Trucking Industry

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Washington — Truck builders are joining the race to develop autonomous vehicles, promising to revolutionize the way the nation delivers goods.

But don’t expect to see robotic trucks on the highway anytime soon, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear says.

“What we’re really talking about is not displacing drivers: I think you’re always going to need drivers in trucks in the cityscapes to do the pickups and deliveries,” Spear told a panel of U.S. lawmakers during a Tuesday roundtable on the future of autonomous vehicles that was organized by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“If you equate it to pilots – you still have pilots in the cockpit. They do the taxiing, they do the takeoff, they do the landing,” Spear said. “What we’re talking about is at cruising altitude hitting that autopilot button. For a trucker, it’s really the long haul. That’s where you really get the return on this kind of investment.”

Recent tests of autonomous trucks by companies like the Anheuser-Busch brewing company and the self-driving truck builder Otto have raised the possibility of transforming the way the nation’s deliveries are made.

Anheuser-Busch announced in October it had completed the world’s first commercial shipment by self-driving truck, sending a beer-filled tractor-trailer built by Otto on a journey of more than 120 miles through Colorado. A driver monitored the trip from a sleeper berth in the cab, but he was not behind the steering wheel.

A truck built by Otto traveled a 35-mile stretch of U.S. Route 33 in central Ohio in regular traffic. In that case, the driver sat ready to intervene if anything went awry

Spear told lawmakers that scenarios with a drivers monitoring self-driving trucks are far more likely than unmanned vehicles in coming years.

“I think we need to be a bit realistic,” Spear said. “We’re talking decades out. It’s going to take a long time for that to filter out of the mainstream marketplace.”

Automation is already beginning to show itself in big rigs with safety features like automatic braking and lane-departure prevention, according to Michael Cammisa, the ATA’s vice president of safety policy and connectivity,

He said automation is going to look a lot different in the trucking industry than it does in the passenger car arena, although the technology that powers the self-driving vehicles in both sectors will be largely the same: Drivers will still be needed to take over for the computers when big rigs enter congested cities to do pick-ups or make deliveries because most truck cabs are not permanently coupled to their trailers.

Self-driving truck concerns

Karl Brauer, executive market analyst for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said technology has a way to go to make large trucks safe for highway driving. But, he said, “those hurdles are much lower than all of the factors related to city driving.”

He added: “Autonomous big rigs make sense because the majority of their driving is on highways with clear lane markers and minimal cross-traffic, meaning minimal variations for the sensors and computers to process. Of course this doesn’t hold true when a truck leaves the freeway, but if a driver controls the truck when it leaves the highway you’ve got the best of both worlds — computer control during basic driving conditions, and human control during complex driving conditions.”

Brauer said self-driving trucks could be cleared by regulators to operate on U.S. roads well before autonomous cars are given the OK.

“When you combine the potential commercial benefits of autonomous trucks, including faster and safer cargo shipping at a reduced cost, with the lower demands of autonomous highway driving, it’s very likely we’ll see autonomous trucks long before we see autonomous cars,” he said.

Safety groups are concerned about the idea of automating trucks that carry heavy loads on U.S. highways.

“We have generally put self-driving trucks in the same kind of category and raised the same kinds of concerns as we have about self-driving cars,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group.

“At this stage of any kind of testing, you’ve got to have a situation where there’s a human who can take over if something goes awry,” he continued. “One thing about trucks is they’re bigger, so potentially if something goes wrong, there’s a possibility it will be more devastating.”

Displacement of drivers

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truckers who work for smaller companies or independently, raised questions about the feasibility of completely self-driving trucks.

“The vehicle isn’t going to (drive) by itself. Somebody is still going to be the operator and that person still has to be paid,” Spencer said in an interview with The Detroit News. “The only way these things would work is if everything is automated: the trucks, the cars, the infrastructure…. Even then, what would an autonomous vehicle do if suddenly there is a pedestrian in the road?”

Spencer added that increased automation could make it more likely for truck drivers to become disengaged with the task of operating the big rig.

“Having a truck that’s automated with a driver attending to it is great, except if in fact the driver isn’t really focusing on what’s happening around it, that driver won’t know what to do when a situation arises,” he said.

Displacement of drivers has been a concern.

“For millions of Americans, particular those without a college degree or advanced training, driving a bus, a cab or a truck can provide a decent income. In fact for many, it is a ticket to the middle class,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said during a recent hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee. “All these are in a space where they could be replaced by an autonomous vehicle, so we have to make sure this technology not only enables better productivity, but it doesn’t disqualify millions of Americans from good, solid jobs.”

But the ATA’s Spear told lawmakers not to worry.

“We just don’t see it,” he said. “Getting drivers into the trucks is a challenge in and of itself.. This could perhaps be a solution to the chronic driver shortage down the road.”

Detroit News Staffer Melissa Nann-Burke contributed.

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