Despite the excitement over autonomous vehicles, an expectation that driverless cars or SUVs will soon be filling the roadways may be premature. Driverless technology development, however, may lend itself to a quicker application for truck transportation. With examples of successful fleets out there already at work, there are reasons to believe that autonomous trucks will be hitting the road in greater numbers in short order:
- The commercial driver shortage is accelerating the demand for autonomous fleets
- Safety concerns are address with autonomous transport.
- Regulatory and economic pressures continue to push the needle when it comes to the advancement and application of driverless transportation solutions for America’s freight.
Self-Driving Trucks – A Solution for the Commercial Driver Shortage
America’s driver shortage is one pain point leading to technology companies investing resources toward driverless systems. Commercial trucking companies are investing for the same reason.
According to the American Trucking Association:
- Continued troubling numbers of driver shortages across the country persist.
- ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello reports that the “trucking industry is short roughly 78,000 drivers.”
- These shortage numbers are historically high and are likely to double by 2030.
With the nation facing on-going supply chain issues, the pressures from the driver shortage are felt even greater and will likely continue to grow investment in autonomous truck development.
Safety and Driverless Fleets
Chris Moore, Head of Apollo ibott 1971, and his team are dedicated to embedded insurance solutions via data development for the rapidly growing digital economy. In a recent Risky Business podcast with ECA Member, Scott Grandys of Clear Connect Solutions, the discussion steered toward autonomous trucks. Moore predicted a “huge reduction in frequency” of truck involved accidents with autonomous technology. “The autonomous vehicle will drive better than a human,” said Moore. His reasoning? Driver fatigue, distracted driving, and recklessness are all risks attributed to human error and obsolete when you’re dealing with driverless fleets.
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 94% of motor-vehicle accidents involve impaired driver-related factors, including distraction and illegal maneuvers, skeptics rightfully have questions about the safety of autonomous vehicles. With technological advancements developing rapidly in this field, there are two safety solutions worth noting here.
- High-powered lidar sensor systems. Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that utilizes pulsed laser light to measure variable distances. The technology consists of a laser, scanner, and specialized GPS receiver. Lidar is being adapted for autonomous trucks to measure distances to and determine shapes and characteristics of objects on and near the road.
- Cameras and radar. These tools are other safety assurance technologies being adapted for autonomous trucks. Although cameras are passive, the combinations of camera, lidar, and radar provide a constant 360-degree sensing. The result is a greater understanding at all times of what’s going on around the vehicle.
- Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Focused on the application of data and algorithms to imitate the way people learn, these advancements produce gradually improved accuracy. Through more training of ML models, the autonomous truck systems can improve perception and identification of camera, lidar, and radar detected objects with greater accuracy.
Publicized accidents involving EV manufacturer Tesla’s Autopilot feature. It’s important to note that Tesla Autopilots are not complete self-driving cars. Their technology is an advanced driver-assistance system that involves human driver responsibility. Additionally, Tesla cars don’t have the high-powered lidar sensor systems that are being developed for autonomous trucking.
While there is still a way to go in safety testing and implementation, experts conclude that fully autonomous driving systems will eventually determine and implement the safest way to complete a driving task with safety scores exceeding that of human capability in the freight transportation arena.
Federal Regulation and the Shift to Driverless Fleets
Although more than three quarters of U.S. states have statutes addressing autonomous truck usage, autonomous trucking’s full value cannot be realized until application in interstate commerce is achieved.
There are currently twenty-one states that allow intrastate deployment of autonomous vehicles including trucks: six states with laws related specifically to autonomous semi-trucks and thirteen states plus the District of Columbia that are researching laws and/or testing autonomous trucks. Only ten states don’t have any laws or formally announced research projects pertaining to autonomous vehicles.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently announced potential rules that would require carriers to notify the Federal government if they plan to operate autonomous trucks on interstate routes. In early 2023, the agency issued a new supplement to help analyze the benefits of future, formalized rulemaking for trucks that use Level 4 and Level 5 automation —those that don’t require a human behind the wheel.
The document, Safe Integration of Automated Driving Systems (ADS)-Equipped Commercial Motor Vehicles also considers requirements for remote assistants who monitor autonomous trucks, as well as potential new vehicle inspection and maintenance requirements for remote workers who monitor the operation of the vehicle.
As the regulatory agency for the usage of autonomous trucking in interstate commerce, the FMCSA’s eventual actions may actually foster a growing number of truck drivers in the nation’s workforce despite a potential shift to autonomous fleets. Because most of the workload of autonomous trucks in the near term would likely be on the long interstate hauls and middle-mile segments, which requires drivers to be on the road for longer times under hours of service regulation, the advent of more autonomous trucks could result in a growing population of final mile drivers focused on local and regional routes and deliveries. This shift in the nature of truck driving jobs may result in more workers seeking to be drivers in the trucking industry, given that final mile trucking keeps drivers close to home, typically on a daily (or nightly) schedule. More women may join the driver workforce for the same reasons. Indeed, a whitepaper published by Womenintrucking.org, titled WIT-TransForce-Female-Driver-Recruiting, concludes that:
- Trucking companies have an upper hand when recruiting women as drivers when they offer flexibility in schedules and routes.
- Women drivers appreciate flexibility and predictability in their work schedules, particularly when they have family members to care for.
The resulting effects may lead to a reduction of the impact of the driver shortage as cited by The American Trucking Association.
Economics of Autonomous Fleets
Supporters of autonomous trucking list several economic reasons for their adoption:
- Labor cost reductions
- More efficient freight deliveries
- Superior operations and increased fuel efficiencies
- Better road safety and regulations resulting in safer roads for all drivers
- Reduced insurance costs
While autonomous fleets require less drivers behind the wheel, a potential reduction in labor costs remains debatable. Trucking firms may bear additional administrative costs beyond their current staffing needs because they will require skilled workers to remotely monitor autonomous trucking lanes. As the role of humans manning autonomous fleets shifts, one scenario suggests that the role of drivers would evolve into a role like many commercial airline pilots – monitoring and adjusting controls as needed. There also remains the cost of labor for a driver at the conclusion of a long interstate route to make the final mile delivery. Apollo ibott 1971’s Moore predicts that for the foreseeable future, long-haul and middle mile could be where driverless technology settles.
Autonomous trucks can run a long multi-state lane without concerns for hours-of-service restrictions, restroom breaks, meals, and sleep. Final mile efficiencies include route optimized mileage control; better fuel efficiency produced by better acceleration and braking techniques; and textbook perfect turning. However, there are obstacles around inspection stations and fueling which present potential solutions and costs to be solved.
Savings resulting from fewer on-road accidents should be realized; however, Moore warns that potential “nuclear verdicts” could temper damage and liability savings in the early stages of autonomous trucking. According to Moore, a driverless truck accident may “not be classified as an ‘accident’ because the truck’s systems decided to do what it did.” If trials go to jury, the jury could decide on perceived risks versus actual and decide to “teach a lesson about the safety of our communities.” As a result, prudence demands extensive testing and careful rollouts.
Ventures such as Waymo, Aurora, Embark Trucks, and Walmart’s autonomous delivery network for the middle mile venture with Gatik are current examples of driverless technology deployment already in the works. The day may be closer that we realize where autonomous trucks on the road in interstate commerce will be part of the everyday scene on our roads.