Plugging the drain of trucking talent with telematics: Part II

If you've missed Part I catch up here>>>>

Parallel evolution

Unfortunately, the development of autonomous trucks can't simply piggyback off work being done by automotive OEMs and tier 1s for passenger vehicles, says Walter Sullivan, head of Elektrobit Automotive’s newly established Silicon Valley Innovation Lab.

Just one example is the navigation system. "In a truck, a route has to be calculated with a different set of parameters," he says. For example, the truck's wider turning radius means it might be able to turn at some intersections. The system also has to be aware of things like bridge heights and general clearances, while it can only use some gas stations.

"There are some underlying technologies that are reusable," Sullivan says, "but there are separate development tracks for trucks and cars."

The autonomous future

As we achieve full autonomy – perhaps between 2020 and 2030 – it will have a ripple effect on the way trucking concerns operate, as well as on the truck driver role.

Autonomy could eliminate the need for long-haul drivers, allowing them to be away for only one or two nights, or maybe even get home every night.

Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Associations (ATA)notes that the less-than-truckload shipping industry already is organized with hub-and-spoke operations, with trucks moving from terminal to terminal in relatively short hops. For example, a driver out of St. Louis may drive the vehicle in a day to Albuquerque. When it arrives at the terminal, part of the cargo may be unloaded and more loaded on. Then the truck goes on to Los Angeles with a new driver, while the first driver picks up a vehicle going back to St. Louis the next morning.

"The concept is already out there," Scott says. "We think this could be done autonomously; I think that is where probably autonomous truck driving starts, along with places like Walmart that will be driving from their terminals to big box operations. No one is going to initially start by moving freight into a city without a driver. But if I can move freight across Montana, that's great."

Scott McCormick, president of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association (CVTA), considers that trucking companies could use the Uber model to connect with people willing to be warm bodies/overseers of autonomous trucks. "Sure, I'll sit in your truck to get to Texas instead of taking a bus or a plane."

McCormick adds that driverless trucks could reduce costs and ease congestion at busy ports. If trucks drive themselves to the port and only require a human to dock them, that changes how drive yards will be constructed, he says. Instead of human drivers waiting sometimes a day or more to drop off their loads, trucks can park themselves in a queue. There would probably be a human overseer who will either move trucks around or just act as a failsafe. This oversight could also be structured as a concierge service, according to McCormick, similar to the way harbour pilots hop aboard ships as needed.

Training truckers for the future

Because it's such early days for highly automated driving of any kind, there's not much clarity on how drivers of automated or platooning trucks will need to be trained. Maybe the systems will be so intuitive and comfortable that it will be an easy adjustment. Or we may need to rethink not only the role of truckers but also their training and certification.

When it comes to platooning, Peloton is working with state departments of transportation, DMVs and federal agencies to develop requirements and licensing. Meanwhile, it's working on systems to train drivers in the use of its systems.

"We're trying to design it to require as minimal training as possible, because it's a challenge to get all the drivers together for training," says Josh Switkes CEO at Peloton. While there may be some classroom or online training, as well as simulators, he believes it best to be able to train drivers in their own trucks with the system installed. There's no replacement for the butt-in-seat experience.

In demonstrations, he says, "When you're driving the rear truck, and we have the front truck tap its brakes, you feel your truck react. But it takes a couple of seconds for you to figure it out. That shows you what it feels like when there is an auto-braking event, and then you're not surprised when it happens again."

Scott thinks that in the near term, requirements and licensing for drivers won't change much. Assumption that it would change I don't think is valid, at least for a while. "Driver training will be much the same as it has been, and the commercial driver's license will not change." However, he could see greater automation and advanced safety systems allowing the age and experience requirements to be lowered a bit. For example, he says that drivers licensed for interstate commerce generally need to be 21-years-old with two years of experience. Maybe some age adjustments to what age you can drive at, could get lowered a bit. "Lowering the age would certainly help with the driver shortage," he says.

The ATA is working on this, along with other entities. "It will take legislation, so we have to work this through congress," Scott says, and then there will need to be pilot projects "We want to test it out."

McCormick agrees that, at some levels of automation, driver qualifications could ease. For example, drivers must pass physical examinations. "Maybe you can extend the driving life of older drivers who don't have to be pushed out because they don't have same requirement of strength and attention," he suggests. As another example, he notes that today's drivers need rudimentary knowledge of how to repair the truck. In future, maybe they'll just have to steer it to the side.

There's disagreement on whether we will ever get to driverless trucks. In the shorter term, McCormick thinks the role of the driver will become similar to that of an airline pilot: getting the truck in and out of the terminal and taking over if something unusual occurs. Longer term, he asks, "If I can drive the truck to an onramp, and it has ability to traverse the next thousand miles without stopping, do I need someone at all?"

Federal regulators seem to lean toward always having a human ready to take control of even autonomous systems. Says Scott, "One thing computers do today and always will is fail. You can't have that occur in a truck. So there has to be a failsafe, and that is having a driver on board."

Another challenge is driver acceptance. Elektrobit's Sullivan notes that the Teamsters Union is a powerful constituency that would need to be on board for changes leading to fully automated truck driving. He says, "Even though it's true that they can't provide enough drivers, I don’t think they're eager to get to driverless."

New career

Profound changes in how truckers work could also change the desirability of the job, says Gail Gottehrer, a partner in Axinn, a law firm that specializes in antitrust, intellectual property and high-stakes litigation.

"We'll go beyond what traditional driving is and what we license today. It will be more of a technology career," Gottehrer says. "The more trucks become autonomous, the more it aligns more with the workforce we have now and the workforce coming behind them. It's such a connected generation that it might make it much more appealing than just saying, 'You'll be driving for days across the country.' That is not appealing to lot of Millennials."

And, she adds, if trucking becomes more of a technology job, maybe training could be done through existing channels including tech schools or manufacturer training.

McCormick would like the industry to rethink the job of trucker in broader terms than simply driving, while opening up a path toward autonomous trucking for people not currently in the industry.

To that end, the CVTA began a joint venture with SAE International and Mobile Comply to create an industry-wide, foundational training program, the Connected Vehicle Professional Credentialing Program. The certification shows that someone has the knowledge and comprehension to "perform tasks involving connected vehicle and intelligent transportation best practices, in-vehicle safety, infrastructure, communication protocols, security and more."

Says McCormick, "You want to replace a dangerous, dirty job with a machine and let the human do something else. You have to provide a path for your people in that future, so they can decide what part they want to play."

Getting regulation right

Trucks are fast, law is slow. How will state and federal regulators, as well as congress, deal with the issue of driverless trucks? The complexity comes not only from the slow movements of government, but also because of different jurisdictions for various autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies.

Gottehrer acknowledges that changing regulations will be tricky. "Licencing will have to be done at every state level," she says. However, "Since most of this is highway driving, it has to start with the Department of Transportation and NHTSA. We need to have them come out with some strong guidance or rulemaking action. I think we need clear national standards and ideas for states, so states can follow a pattern that will lead to consistency. We will have vehicle crossing state lines, and incoherent rules will make it more complicated."

For example, Scott of the ATA points out, "There is no federal law that says I have to have a driver in the vehicle, while state laws govern the following distance for platooning vehicle."

Wes Mays, director of OEM product innovation at Omnitracs added, "The big one that keeps getting me is the tailgating rules, [which are made at the state level.] That's the simplest [item on the rule-making agenda] but we haven't been able to get past that. And the ability of the driver to do other things than drive will need to be addressed at both the federal and the state level."

Gottehrer says that the trucking industry can play a real role in helping regulators and lawmakers understand the technology, the roadmaps and what laws make sense. She says, "Even if NHTSA could get a grasp on the technology, by the time you put together guidance, it's outdated. You don't want to work on legislation that will be moot by the time it's passed. The real way for government to do that effectively is to work in partnership with manufacturers. Manufacturers are the ones who know about the technology and where it's heading."

She calls for open back-and-forth among stakeholders. For example, regulators should be open to hearing from manufacturers about whether or not their safety concerns are valid.

In addition, Gottehrer says, "There's a huge public perception problem. The idea of an 18-wheeler going down the highway with the driver doing something else is horrifying to people. You have to overcome the perception problems and get people on board."

She thinks that the way a few states and Washington DC have worked with OEMs, suppliers and tech companies in order to test and license autonomous vehicles could be an example of how this could work.

New work rules?

As automation progresses, if drivers need to do even less, some work rules for drivers may need to be changed. Says Mays, "My view is, if we have to have a driver on board, and he doesn't have to pay attention to the road, he could take a nap. So why would hours of service apply?"

Of course, he adds, that question is still 10 to 15 years down the road. But we should start planning now for this and other eventualities. For example, he asks, when a truck is in autonomous mode or even unmanned, "How will law enforcement respond to a vehicle that is operating in such a mode that it won't respond to their flashing red light? Law enforcement has a lot to say in how states authorise transportation, and I see varying law enforcement across the country come into play very strongly."

Mays suspects that law enforcement won't be in favour of driverless vehicles of any kind. "They will be putting up sizeable road blocks, and the industry as a whole needs to work with law enforcement to make it palatable."

Chain of liability

Liability in case of an accident must also be considered. Gottehrer thinks it's likely that much of existing case law is applicable to autonomous driving. Assuming no new laws are passed, she says, "Everyone in the chain will get sued: the driver, the manufacturer, technology manufacturers –everyone will get included."

That may not be the best approach, however. She suggests that some sort of protection of certain pieces or players will be necessary in order for innovation to continue. She already is seeing manufacturers focusing more on agreements with component suppliers in terms of liability along the supply chain, trying to agree on who will bear how much risk toward putting the product together and getting it on the road.

That doesn't mean that there won't be some thorny issues. Hypothetically, she asks, what if someone has an autonomous vehicle, has a few cocktails and goes over the legal limit for blood alcohol – and then the car malfunctions and he has to take control but can't do it effectively? "Is that reckless? Criminally and/or civilly reckless?" she asks.

Vehicle owners may also be legally on the hook if they fail to maintain autonomous vehicles and then the systems fail. "That would clearly be on the fleet owner, and the company would have an incentive to keep the vehicle in good shape. The law has not begun to figure out how to assign responsibility."


To get a new generation trained and eager for a new kind of truck driving enabled by technology, we should start now – with kindergartners.

Mays thinks the crucial issue will be whether or not drivers have the freedom to do other things besides stare at the road – or the truck – ahead. He says, "If we allow the operator of the vehicle do something else to occupy their time, yeah, we may be able to attract that younger set of drivers. But that is a significant change in the philosophy of the industry as a whole."

Rebranding could also help, according to Gottehrer.  "Hauling freight across the country is hard to make appealing to anybody," she says. On the other hand, dealing with cutting-edge technology that lets you control a huge 18-wheeler, like a Thomas Truck on steroids – that could be cool. "The more it stays the same, the harder it will be to fill in the [personnel] gap."

Gottehrer says that labour unions can play an important role in helping the profession to evolve. "Rather than resist change, unions would be well served to train their members and have a hand in shaping the broader view of what trucking could be. Unions would serve their members by encouraging them to rethink this because it's inevitable."

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



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