Autonomous Vehicles: Happy Birthday, George Jetson – Thanks for the Inspiration Part I

By Steve Keppler, Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, consultant to Axele

Were autonomous vehicles foretold by a 1960s cartoon?

For those who are old enough to remember, the Jetsons animated sitcom was an interesting take on what the future of transportation and life would look like in the year 2062. While in some respects 2062 is still off in the distance, George Jetson himself, aged 40 at the series debut, would have been born in the year 2022, which is just around the corner, and so are autonomous vehicles–or are they?

The last decade or so has seen a tremendous uptick in the trucking industry in the development and deployment of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). But as excitement swells, progress on some fronts seems painfully slow. Despite periodic announcements of autonomous vehicles making beer runs or Uber deliveries, there’s still a driver behind every steering wheel. Despite hopeful commentary about active safety technology, trucks and cars are still crashing. While autonomous technology is being rapidly developed and there are many players in the game, the pace of its deployment is not moving as quickly, and many questions remain. What will the future of autonomous vehicles look like, and when will it get here?

There have been increased adoption rates by fleets of technologies like collision mitigation, lane departure warning, emergency braking and blind spot detection systems.  A primary driver of this adoption has been to increase safety and reduce accidents, and to reduce carrier liability. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety bolsters this claim, noting that these systems could eliminate more than 2 in 5 rear-end crashes involving large trucks. The study also notes there are benefits to be accrued beyond just crash reduction because these systems also contribute to crashes being less severe due to a reduction in speed.

Camera system adoption accelerating

More recently, the adoption of forward and inward camera-based systems has been accelerating in the marketplace. These systems add another dimension to enhancing safety in that they “see” what the driver sees, and the video captured can serve multiple benefits both for the driver and the fleet.  These systems capture harsh events such as speeding, hard braking and distracted driving and are often used by fleets as a coaching tool for drivers to improve behaviors. They also can be used to help exonerate drivers in the event of a crash and sometimes help to reduce insurance premiums.

While these systems continue to show their benefits, barriers to deployment still exist, particularly among smaller fleets. A recent OOIDA Foundation survey found that the highest adoption rate among owner operators was 57% for road facing cameras, which is more likely targeted at exonerating drivers from crash liability than safety. Only 24% of those surveyed have forward-collision warning and only 18% have equipped automatic emergency braking. When asked why, the most commonly cited reason was the perception that these technologies compromise the driver’s control over the vehicle, followed by the notion of prohibitive cost. Many in the industry believe these data points highlight the need to work harder to educate the industry on the true benefits and drawbacks of this technology.

FMCSA, to its credit and in partnership with several industry associations and organizations, has launched a major educational and awareness effort to help address these issues with its “Tech-Celerate Now” campaign, which is focused on accelerating the adoption of ADAS by the trucking industry and to provide helpful resources for those considering purchasing these technologies.

Investment in ADAS

There is a ton of investment being put into the next-generation ADAS to raise the safe baseline for everyone. This investment will seed improvements in hardware and electronic processing power to enable data assimilation and analysis and seeing objects of interest more quickly and farther off in the distance. The end result will increase visibility, accuracy, reduce distractions, improve vehicle handling, and enhance braking. Perhaps more importantly, the component manufacturers are working with vehicle OEMs, other 3rd parties and fleets to makes sense of all the data being collected to present it in a meaningful way that can be acted on. They are also working on introducing APIs to share the data across platforms and to integrate with other systems.

These investments are not focused solely on the power unit; they are now extending to trailing equipment as well. Manufacturers and fleets are recognizing the value of a total vehicle network concept, which integrates a multitude of sensors and systems. With technologies such as location tracking, weight, temperature control, tire pressure/inflation, wheel end temperature, braking and lighting monitoring systems, fleets can have access to a plethora of data and intelligence on trailers to enhance performance and allow for predictive maintenance and load management. These breakthroughs, and the data they produce, will work in tandem with tractor technology to further improve safety and drive additional autonomous efficiencies. These advancements are an important step in moving towards platooning, truck electrification and autonomous trucks.

Part II of this blog will be published on Thursday of this week. Come see that installment for how the different levels of driving automation will affect what you experience on the road.

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