Time for Automated Trucks

The driving public may not know it yet, but its sustained desire to eliminate the risk of fatal truck accidents is leading inexorably to a future of automated trucks on U.S. highways. Jarring as that may seem, it’s not a bad thing at all. Everyone will be safer, and the business benefits will be huge.

Due in part to the effective efforts of highway safety advocates, the trucking industry faces a chronic shortage of drivers, despite 9.8 million unemployed Americans who were looking for work as of April. Truckers face new, stricter rules on required rest time, which makes it harder for them to earn a living, while trucking companies are now publicly scored on their safety records under the Compliance, Safety, Accountability, or CSA, initiative, a federal program that is slowly weeding out thousands of less-qualified drivers.

With the U.S. economy improving, the driver shortage is contributing to a shortage of trucking capacity that is driving up rates for retailers and manufacturers. In the first quarter, for example, an average of 150 trucks belonging to Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Covenant Transport, or more than 5 percent of its fleet, sat idle in parking lots because the company couldn’t find enough qualified drivers despite customers with freight needing to be hauled. 

It doesn’t look like the situation will change anytime soon. Trucking is unlikely to suddenly become a fashionable career. Trucking wages are rising but not fast enough to attract the thousands of additional drivers the industry needs. Some long-haul freight is shifting from truck to intermodal, but long-sought trucking industry goals such as expanding use of multitrailer vehicles and increasing weight limits — allowing carriers to haul more freight with the same number of drivers — likely will make little headway in the face of determined opposition from highway safety advocates (and railroads).

As the U.S. economy heats up, trucking may have to hire as many as 100,000 drivers a year to keep up with shipping demand, according to the American Trucking Associations. It’s unclear where those drivers will come from.

So a new solution is needed, and automated trucks are the best answer on the horizon. Is it possible? Technologically, yes, or nearly so. Driverless trucks have been deployed in non-public environments such as remote mining projects in Australia. Self-driving vehicle technology is making headway thanks in large part to Google, whose prototype driverless Lexus SUVs equipped with lasers, cameras and radar had surpassed 700,000 miles of accident-free driving on California and Nevada roads as of April.

Automated cars recognize and react to bicyclists, rail crossings and stop signs. Google says it hopes to make the technology commercially available by 2017. While allowing car drivers to be more productive during commutes is a nice productivity benefit, reducing fatalities has been Google’s primary motivator.

“According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents,” Google said in a 2010 blog post. “We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half.”

And, in late April, Google Project Director Chris Urmson wrote, “We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention.”

Automated trucks hold out the promise of eliminating all human factors in trucking accidents: Fatigue, alcohol, drug use, speeding, texting and other distractions could be relegated to the past. Because an automated truck would only have to stop to refuel, it could operate at a slower, safer speed, say 50 miles per hour, and cover the same distance in the same or less amount of time. Fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced. Traffic jams would become immaterial and trucks could be programmed to arrive when needed, improving warehouse efficiency. With a maximum payload of fuel a truck could theoretically cross half the country without stopping.

Driverless trucks could possibly run like “road trains” between distribution centers and be untethered and manned for last-mile delivery. Another, possibly interim idea is that of a “road train” of electronically “tethered” driverless trucks, with a driver acting as “engineer” in the lead cab. If three trucks are linked in a “convoy, you’d replace three drivers with one.

Automated trucks unquestionably present a lengthy list of issues. What happens in an accident? How do police “pull over” or report automated trucks with infractions such as malfunctioning lights? What happens if a truck becomes disabled? Will insurers play ball? Who fills the gas tank, and how is the fuel paid for? What happens when an unmanned truck arrives at a shipper or consignee? Who ensures the freight loaded is actually what’s on the bill of lading? Who signs for it or ensures the trailer is sealed?

What I find most compelling about the idea is my gut reaction. I would feel no less safe sharing the road with automated trucks.  

Contact Peter Tirschwell at ptirschwell@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @petertirschwell.

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