Plugging the drain of trucking talent with telematics: Part I

The Inspiration is truckin' along. In May, Daimler Trucks North America set the first Freightliner Inspiration free on public roads in Nevada. The demo vehicle is the first licensed, autonomous commercial truck to drive on a public highway in the United States. But don't call it a driverless truck.

In accordance with state regulations, a human driver is behind the wheel at all times. But the vehicle's level-three autonomy means that the Inspiration can stay in its designated lane keeping a safe distance from other vehicles, maintain legal speed, and brake safely to a halt when necessary. Most important, it can determine when to hand off control to the driver.

In a press release, the company said, "Freightliner Trucks does more than any other commercial truck manufacturer to integrate the truck, the driver and the business. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a case in point because it is not a driverless truck—the driver is a key part of a collaborative vehicle system." (Actually, there are two autonomous Inspirations demo vehicles but the company speaks of them in the singular.)

In other words, the driver can't sit back and watch YouTube or check Facebook for hours at a time. Instead, the driver is expected to monitor the Highway Pilot application that displays the truck's status and accepts commands. The trucker can also use the Inspiration's large display to work with Detroit Connect, Daimler's integrated telematics solution. Daimler posits that truckers will give some of their spare attention to using Detroit Connect to handle tasks such as logging and routing.

To date, the Inspirations have logged around 10,000 highway miles and they're piloted by research engineers. When these trucks hit the road commercially, how much will this change the job of truck driving?

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates that there's a shortage of between 35,000 and 40,000 drivers, with new drivers entering the profession slower than older drivers are retiring. Large carriers are poaching experienced drivers from smaller fleets by offering them better pay and signing bonuses, according to the Wall Street Journal, while more truckers have quit altogether in response to tightened work rules that cap how much money they can make.

What will an industry of autonomous trucks look like? And, in the shorter term, what connectivity and advanced safety features could make truck driving more appealing to young folk?

Driver assistive truck platooning

Platooning, more formally known as driver assistive truck platooning (DATP) could be the low-hanging fruit in taking driving to the next level. Walter Sullivan, head of Elektrobit Automotive’s newly established Silicon Valley Innovation Lab, notes that platooning will be one of the first implementations of automated truck driving, owing to the promise of greater fuel economy. Pointing out that OEMs are happy to eke out a 3% reduction in fuel each model year, "When a vehicle is driving 200,000 miles a year, if you can save 10% on fuel, that's massive," he says.

Peloton Technologies has demonstrated just that in tests of its Peloton System to link two heavy trucks. A study conducted by Auburn University’s GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory, along with partners Peloton, Peterbilt Motors, Meritor-Wabco and the American Transportation Research Institute, found that the lead truck gained as much as a 5% improvement in fuel economy, while the trailing truck got up to 10% improvement.

Peloton started with two-truck platooning because it's simpler technically, according to CEO Josh Switkes but there's an additional reason. "We want to make sure the public doesn't complain about trucks in their way getting on and off the highway," he says.

That's a concern brought up by many that will have to be eventually addressed: If a 10-truck platoon is passing an exit ramp, how will single vehicles manoeuvre through it to get to the exit?

There's plenty more scepticism. Wes Mays, director of OEM product innovation at Omnitracs, points out that all drivers in the platoon will still have to steer their individual trucks. "The lead driver, short of a major accident, will not be able to change lanes, brake heavily or do a lot of the things they normally do," Mays says. "And the following drivers will have to stay alert 35 feet behind the lead truck. You're not going to have a lot of scenery to look at." He also thinks it's dangerous, because following drivers won't be able to see what's on the road ahead of the leader. He thinks that eventually platooning systems will need to let following drivers take their hands off the wheels.

Ted Scott, director of engineering for the ATA, also has concerns about driver acceptance. "The driver in the first vehicle probably doesn't have a problem, but the driver in the second truck may not be too happy. He's 30 feet back from the trailer in front. What's his view, and who's controlling his life? … 'I've gotta steer, but I can hardly see.' That's tough."

These are valid concerns, and ones that Peloton is addressing, according to Switkes. Following drivers in platoons will be able to see a video feed from the lead truck, so that they can be alerted to hazards ahead. And, having driven many miles himself testing his company's systems, Switkes says that the view for the following truck is not that bad – although the Auburn study used only tractors without loads. While it sounds close – and is closer than anyone would drive manually, he says, "You can see the other lanes and off ahead of you just fine. It's not that much different from driving a couple hundred feet behind another vehicle."

Furthermore, even though the following driver will have to pay attention and steer, Switkes says that he or she will be able to relax more than in manual driving. "When we talk to drivers, they say one of their big concerns is they won't be able to react in time to something on the road. If they hit something, and they're blamed, they could lose their job or it could impact their career. Safety automation can help address that. When you are in the rear truck, you will be protected by the system. It will react quicker than you could react."

Other feedback Peloton has received is that drivers pretty quickly realise that the system will react for them by braking and distance-keeping, so they can relax somewhat. Switkes describes the level of attention required as "still paying attention and in command, but not white-knuckle ready to slam on the brakes. That's the trade-off."

Implementation challenges and next steps

Mays expects less pushback from fleet owners than from drivers. "The carrier community thinks there is an opportunity, and it looks like from an economic standpoint, it may be a good thing to do, because it will save fuel," he says.

The next step will be to do more pilots, in order to understand how automobiles and platooning vehicles will interact, according to Mays. "It's ridiculous to think they will be operating everywhere. I don't believe they will operate off highway or on rural roads," Mays says. "Clearly, the trucks' navigation systems will need to know where [platooning is allowed] and route the vehicle from one point to another."

An even bigger requirement, he adds, is good data communications between the fleet manager and back-office systems, and the driver. This would enable a system that could provide a fairly good estimate of when an individual truck will come to the end of a platooning segment or route.

Switkes points out that for freight operations already put their hubs or distribution centres near interstates or US highways, so he believes that most miles driven by trucks would be platoonable.

While Peloton's offering includes telematics services, others want to get into this game. "In order to locate vehicles that could platoon with you, there is definitely a need for telematics services that can track and geofence locations around vehicles, so that they could platoon together," Mays says. "We see that as a huge opportunity for us. Our benefit would be in the software as a service, using a telematics provider, tracking where vehicle are and matching them up with similarly equipped vehicles."

It might be useful if trucks from different fleets could platoon together but that would require interoperability between different vendors' telematics and platooning systems. Mays says, "The industry as a whole would be much better off if there were a universal way of matching up assets together, and we'd be open to considering that. It's to everyone's advantage to collaborate and communicate." However, he's not aware of anyone working on such standards.

Changing driver roles

The more intensive role to be played by communications and information technology could make the job of truck a better fit with the presumed higher interest on the part of Millennials in connectivity and apps. (However, it should be noted that Baby Boomer truckers – along with older people in general — have enthusiastically adopted technology that could make their jobs and lives easier, from CB radio to smartphones to tablets.)

Mays says, "Drivers will need to be much more attuned to data communication techniques; they will have to buy into the idea of being connected all the time. The drivers will be much less concerned about steering and stepping on the brake and more concerned about making sure their navigation plans are intact. It will be more of a data job."

A bigger concern, he says, is how they will occupy their time and attention in more automated driving. "I'm not sure that role will occupy much of their time; that's where finding a means and method for them to occupy time for rest of trip."

If, as Daimler is suggesting, drivers will use some of their free time and attention to handle routing and logistics tasks in the cab, they may need to be trained to do this.

Making the business case

Greater fleet automation and autonomy will entail some changes in the ways fleets and shipping companies operate, as well as create new jobs while transforming existing ones. First, commercial carriers must buy in – literally.

The ATA's Scott points out that automating trucks costs money. If the fleet owner still has to pay a driver to sit behind the wheel — whatever he or she might be doing – the additional cost of the technology plus the driver's salary might not pencil out against the cost of the upgrade. He asks, "Why would I want to automate a truck when I still have a driver in it? I don't want to pay a driver to do nothing. That will be a dilemma for a while as we move through this."

One scenario has the trucker becoming more of an IT expert with different certifications, which might necessitate a pay increase. An alternate scenario has a less-qualified driver, with the truck doing more of the work. Maybe the driver is running an Etsy store or studying for a PhD in philosophy, while keeping an eye on the autonomous truck's displays.

As McCormick says, "If we have more automation, the last thing you want to do as a trucking company is pay people more money to sit in the truck. Maybe I don't need someone that has their category-8 licence."

However, Scott thinks it's possible that, in addition to not reducing costs by eliminating drivers, autonomous trucking might actually require more personal than manually driven operations; for example, fleets might need to employ engineers and computer programmers to work with the technology.

Elektrobit's Sullivan points to another issue: a mismatch between the time from investment to return for commercial trucking companies and technology start-ups. Tech companies looking to work with fleet owners might have to wait five years between creating a commercially viable product and getting it installed in a new generation of trucks. "So I have to figure out how to pay salaries until 2020," he says. Technology vendors must either look for additional sources of revenue or else have already built substantial business elsewhere so that they can invest.

When it comes to platooning technology, there is plenty of commercial motivation for carriers to spend for new hardware and software solutions, according to Sullivan, because of the potential savings on fuel. He says, "If you develop a new technology and can identify a segment with real commercial motivation to buy it, you've struck gold."

From the customer point of view, the research project conducted by Auburn, Peloton et. al. on driver assistive truck platooning found that 87% of carriers would want their investment costs paid back in less than 24 months.

Says Switkes, "When we talk to fleets, it's clear that they expect a sub-two-year payback on anything they're buying. For things that provide small savings, like 1%, they want payback sub one year." Peloton expects its customers to get payback for the upfront hardware costs for its platooning system in less than one year; they'll also pay a fee per mile when they are using the ADTP platform. 

Don't miss Part II here>>>>

Catch up with all the latest developments with commercial connectivity at Connected Fleets USA November 16-17.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *