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

By Steve Keppler, Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, consultant to Axele

Part I of this blog was published earlier this week, and covered how new technologies have led to the development of autonomous vehicles, investments in the tech, and more.

Despite naysayers and the traveling public being wary of them, automated vehicles are already here. More than a dozen companies in the United States are either developing autonomous tractor-trailers or are already road testing them on interstate highways. In the testing that is going on, there are still drivers behind the wheel, along with “safety” drivers that are monitoring the technology side of the equation on the vehicle and capturing real-time information on how the systems are performing under certain conditions and scenarios.

One major challenge with adoption of autonomous trucks lies with the truck manufacturers. Fleets won’t be able to purchase trucks until they have all the technology needed for the vehicle to operate safely in an autonomous mode, and design and production cycles are lengthy to ramp up for commercial deployment.

Legislative and other issues

There are many other legislative, research, policy, regulatory and related issues that still need to be worked out prior to automated vehicles going prime time, and the US Department of Transportation and many states are working through these now. For its part, the US DOT is committed to being a leader in supporting the effort, acting as a convenor and facilitator through its Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan. The plan has identified 38 United States Government components that have direct or indirect roles in the safe development and integration of AV technologies. In addition, Congress is weighing in with reauthorization of the Highway Bill, which when it passes will provide additional direction and support of AV technologies.

All the activity going on in this space is enough to make your head spin. There are six levels of autonomy, which are defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Since its initial launch in 2014, the SAE Levels of Driving Automation provide clarity on what capabilities are included in each level, starting at zero (no driving automation) to level 5 (full driving automation).

Source: SAE International

Many of today’s commercially available ADAS systems are operating at levels zero to 2, whereas the development and testing currently occurring across the industry is at levels 3 through 5. The question that always comes up is how long until we get to full automation? The answer to this, not surprisingly, is it “depends” on with whom you talk. Even when fully autonomous trucks are in operation, for a period of time drivers will still need to be in cab as a safety feature. 

Autonomous vehicles and drivers

There will always be a need for drivers, and the likelihood of 100% autonomous trucks across the industry is doubtful. The reality is, given the diversity of the trucking industry and the supply chain, there are many public, economic, safety and operational considerations and variables that will impact on how, where and when fully autonomous vehicles can be deployed. Many of these variables can be controlled and managed through technology, but some cannot.

Most experts believe we are five to ten years from having any significant commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, and it could be longer. There are certain locations in the country, in the southwest for example, where the uncontrollable variables (e.g., weather and traffic) can be minimized and the freight volumes and dedicated runs pencil out from an economics standpoint. At least to start, this is where the application of full autonomy in OTR applications makes most sense. However, there are many locations or segments of the trucking industry where it might not make sense, or at least for a while.  

Over time, the nature of the driver’s job will change. We are seeing that already, whether it is through ADAS or other driver enhancing features; automatic transmissions and ELDs being just two examples. The career of the truck driver will change in the future. It will require more advanced training and skills and will encompass additional complex tasks. The truck driving experience of tomorrow will be much different and will hopefully have a broader appeal to a wider segment of the population.

The airline industry is a good parallel example. Planes and network controlling systems have very sophisticated technologies and systems in place, but pilots and air traffic controllers are still needed to help in supporting these systems, to manage operations and to deal with discrepancies and exceptions. The comparison offers some interesting insights as to what may be in store for the future of the trucking industry. It also is an interesting comparison with our friends the Jetsons, since in 2062 cars fly as well.

While we don’t think that cars and trucks will be flying in 2062, who knows what innovations will be around 40 years from now. What is clear and obvious is there always will be a need for trucks and drivers, and the trucking industry has always been able to evolve and adapt to change. While autonomous vehicles certainly will have some new and different wrinkles, we see no reason why the industry can’t rise to the occasion as it always does.

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