Are Self-Driven Trucks a Reality?

What is the Reality of the Automated Vehicles Industry for Truck Drivers?

 

Last Tuesday, the US National Transportation Safety Board found that it was an ‘inadequate safety culture’ at Uber that contributed to the death of a pedestrian in the US last year. With all the talk of the imminent arrival of self-driving vehicles, we thought we’d take a look at the current situation in our world of trucking and give you an update.

As we head into a new decade, we are inundated daily with details of the latest new tech: fancy new features which will change our life; beautiful sleek objects and apps that we just have to have. Inevitably, some of these exciting new products will have a positive impact, some won’t. Some are well thought out and provide genuine solutions, while others are soon found to be a pointless gimmick.

Where does automated driving fit on the scale of gimmick to gold? The idea isn’t particularly new anymore, with real efforts in tech development starting to make headlines in the mid 90s (although check out this article from Digital Trends about radio-controlled cars in the 20s!).

As a forward-thinking organisation focused on developments in the trucking industry, DrivenMedia is eager to find out what the future of the haulage industry might look like. Will our Launch Campaigns of the future feature empty cabs?  Or is it all just hype and hot air?

 

Automated trucks are here. Now.

The first thing to note is that it most certainly is not a dream. Not only does the technology exist, it is very much in use on a commercial basis – in the US at least. With an interesting disparity between State Laws as well as the huge open roads, America is the obvious place to trial.

While automated vehicles are often lumped together in terms of qualities and risks, the sheer weight and size of an HGV means that we are talking an entirely different beast. If you consider the stopping distance difference between a car and a lorry (see our recent Truck Safety  blog for more info), as well as the potential for an accident in test phase, it is not difficult to see why developers are looking for the biggest open spaces they can.

Texas is a playground for Kodiac and UPS have been delivering with driverless trucks for months. Mercedes have recently slowed down work on their driverless taxis in favour of trucks and Highways England were reported to be trialling Britain’s first driverless dumper trucks on the A14 this year.

 

How autonomous are they really?

The trucks mentioned above aren’t whizzing around remotely with no human interaction. Those days ARE a little way off… There are five levels of automation (six if you count zero!) and Level Four is the farthest any trials have gone, while Level 1 is a reality for Companies like Pelaton who have launched their ‘Platooning’ technology involving braking automation and interfleet communication!

5 levels of automaton for self-driving vehicles

Source: https://www.synopsys.com/automotive/autonomous-driving-levels.html

 

What Does the Future Hold for Truck Drivers?

The first thing to note is that it is only the last two levels of automaton that DON’T require drivers. There is a huge difference between ‘automated’ trucks and ‘driverless’ trucks. Yet, while it is tempting to report that we are a very long way from those vehicles being considered safe and viable – it appears there is now a race on in the industry, with Daimler Trucks pledging to make it a reality this year, with the following firms on a similar mission: Embark, Einride, TuSimple, Waymo, Volvo, Tesla. There are others dabbling, but these are the Big Seven making headlines with realistic launch programmes.

If the trucks don’t need someone to hold the steering wheels or push the pedals, is a ‘driver’ a thing of the past? Should we be worried about the future for truck drivers? The first thing to remember is that the trucking industry is, in fact in crisis. There is a shortage of truck drivers and it is only getting worse. So the automation industry – to level three – is actually likely to appeal to the next generation of drivers and so improve uptake within the career.

The second thing to note is that there are a multitude of tasks undertaken by a driver – not simply turning the wheel or stamping on the brake. This article in Harvard Business Review points out that “truck drivers perform all kinds of tasks, from checking vehicles and securing cargo, maintaining logs and providing customer service” and that the majority of these tasks are “nowhere close to being automatable” (although this report about automated loading and unloading implies it is not a million miles away!).

Drivers provide customer service, they complete paperwork, they perform vehicle checks and they load and unload vehicles. Could we stomach leaving livestock in the hands of a robot? What about hazardous chemicals? We also know that the long straight roads are one thing, but navigating the last 10 % of a journey often requires some tight manouvering by the driver. Unless we’re going to look at changing the physical nature of our warehouse, farms and docks – driverless trucks will have a challenge.

In fact, the feeling in the industry is drifting towards the opposite: automated technology will make life easier for truckers in the (next few decades) short-term.

 

“The convergence of automated braking, acceleration and steering, which together represent Level 2 automated driving as defined by SAE International, promises to enhance safety and make the job of the truck driver more comfortable and less stressful.”Transport Topics (ttnews.com)

 

Long-term – who knows? The efficiency of the ‘travelling’ aspect of transport may improve so much that industry grows in other directions (logistics / warehousing) and that drivers find they are employed in increasingly varied ways. Could it be that with our growing awareness of work / life balance, mental & physical health and the high risk nature of the job this is one of those roles that the robots are welcome to? Or in an increasingly tech-driven society should we be reminding ourselves that human-beings in all our complexity have so much more to offer than automaton?

 

We’d love to know your thoughts!

 

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