The race is on to get driverless trucks on the roads, and experts say the impact on professional drivers ‘is going to be huge’. Driverless trucks will be safer and cheaper than their human-controlled counterparts, but that doesn’t mean America’s 3.5 million professional truck drivers are giving up to the machines without a fight.
What is the fight about? There is now self-driving truck technology built by tech company Otto. Otto was an 8-month-old start-up founded by Google Car veterans and was recently bought by ride-hailing giant Uber for $670 million. One of their test drivers told USA Today that this technology, once fully developed, will allow truck drivers to add more hours and more runs to their schedule.
There is some push back by trucking professionals. For reasons ranging from highway speeds to varying cargo requirements, trucking experts are very skeptical that this technology will allow a driver sleeping while his truck drives across a lonely state. ATA spokesman Sean McNally told the paper that even though the notion of driver-less technology is intriguing and promising, they are very cynical that this will be successful.
Scott Grenerth, regulatory affairs director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, see trucks as posing unique challenges that still are not addressed by this technology. He told USA Today that “a truck driver has to be 100% engaged in the act of driving, scanning the horizon for that SUV that’s changing a tire on the shoulder or some idiot doing something dumb, and anything less isn’t something I want to deal with, ever.” Grenerth, who as a trucker logged a million accident-free miles, says he welcomes any technology that enhances the safety and comfort of the trucking experience for drivers. But, he adds, “I don’t see computers being able to account for every situation a trucker might experience.”
ATA spokesman McNally emphasizes that, depending on the type of cargo that’s being hauled, a driver might be required to constantly monitor his load’s safety. That would make going to sleep impossible. He also adds that a regulatory framework that applies to all 50 states would be critical to making interstate self-driving trucking a reality.
And then there’s the issue of jobs. “You talk about automated trucks and the topic of that being a job killer does come up with drivers,” says McNally. “We’d like to think you’ll always need a driver.”
Otto is forging forward despite the pushback. One co-founder of Otto, Anthony Levandowski, was recruited by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to oversee the $67 billion company’s self-driving efforts. Clearly, Kalanick saw the potential for Uber to own a piece of the massive U.S. trucking industry, which in 2015 brought in $726 billion in revenue and accounted for 81% of all freight transport, according to the American Trucking Associations. Once installed in the trucks, all of these gadgets would bring so-called Level 4 independence to a truck. Level 4 is when a truck is “fully autonomous.” According to the DOT, level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. For example, the driver could sleep in the back while the truck drives itself on highways. All city driving would be handled by humans. The backers of the technology see so much potential since drivers are limited in terms of the number of consecutive hours they can drive. So a parked truck is a truck not making a delivery, not earning its keep. Those at Otto see the future of truck driving where the vehicle can theoretically hit the road all night while the driver sleeps in the cab which could get the driver to his next destination, or home to his family, faster. Otto doesn’t want to stop at driver-less trucks. Sometime in the coming few years, it hopes to produce an aftermarket self-driving kit consisting of radar, laser radar, cameras and computers that can be added to existing big rig cabs.
Otto’s Ron insists that getting rid of truck drivers is not the company’s mission. “Remember, this technology works exit to exit, not really in a city, so you’ll need the driver,” he says. Nevertheless, Ron says Otto is focusing on Level 4 autonomy because “handing control back to the driver at the last minute in case of an emergency will not work.”
During USA TODAY’s short test drive, a couple of advantages over self-driving cars immediately surfaced.
For one, a self-driving car’s tendency to drive like an elderly grandparent is annoying on city streets, but the same behavior in a truck on a highway doesn’t give motorists fits. While Otto’s rig stayed in its lane at a steady 55 mph, most cars simply chose to pass us. And second, given that self-driving trucks may often find themselves virtually alone on an open highway, a system that serves as a super-sophisticated cruise control could take away some of the monotony of the driving chore.
But in the end it’s difficult to make l the leap from driver-monitored to driver-napping trucking. Essentially, the issue of a tractor cab (weighing around 15,000 to 20,000 pounds) and its trailer (from 30,000 to 60,000) shooting down the road at 70 mph with a computer at the helm is likely to worry truckers and regular drivers alike for some time.
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