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New Guidance And A Fresh Look At Autonomous Rigs

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently updates its guidance on autonomous vehicle technologies. In their latest outline on the measure, the specific verbiage of the guidance states that the DOT is looking into “how automation will be safely integrated across passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, on-road transit, and the roadways on which they operate.”

The new guidance comes because of a meeting in the beginning of October where Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao introduced an 80-page update with the title: “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0.” This is an update to the 2.0 version, which was released last September.

Furthermore, Secretary Chao stated that the new 3.0 guidance was created specifically to deal with a range of questions brought up by industries involved in automation, from technology developers to infrastructure owners and operators and motor carriers. State and local governments were also mentioned.

The DOT aims to provide a support structure that inspires a safe development of automated vehicle technologies. They want to reduce policy uncertainty and clarify business roles. As the technology evolves, government agencies want to make sure they have a process outlined for how the technology will be regulated, from the corporate to the federal level.

By interpreting and providing guidance regarding market innovation, the DOT wants to bring some clarity to roles. What are the definitions of “driver” or “operator?” Are they different? Whereas the term “driver” may refer to a human element, the term “operator” could refer to an autonomous technology. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a person.

The new guidance also discusses the upcoming transition to the 5G cell technology. How will transportation safety applications function in the realm of 5.9 GHz spectrum? The agency seeks to identify and support the development of wireless and automation-related standards. These standards will help influence the integration of automation-related technologies and ensure there are not gaps in safety standards during implementation.

Agencies and Groups Weigh In

Of course, as is customary, the DOT will be requesting public comment on the guidance, which is still technically a draft document. The next step will require the guidance to be published in the federal register, which will open it up for review and comment.

FMCSA Administrator Raymond Martinez remarked that the agency he leads will continue engaging with stakeholders through outreach activities, meetings, and conferences, with the goal of advancing safety and efficiency as the technology matures.

In his statement, he went on to say that the agency is going to encourage innovation while prioritizing for safety to reduce roadway crashes. Meanwhile, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) reacted positively to the draft document. ATA President and CEO Chris Spear called it a “substantive framework” that recognized how critical commercial motor vehicles are to develop autonomous regulation at the federal level.

Furthermore, the ATA stated that it was important key safety policy remain preserved, which the new draft document attempts to do. Still, there are many unanswered questions surrounding the future of autonomous driving technologies, especially where commercial motor vehicles are concerned.

Outstanding Questions

When one thinks of autonomous vehicles, there are still many different unresolved matters that must be concerned. How will an operator interact with a semi- or fully-autonomous truck? Furthermore, how will said truck be dispatched. If the vehicle encounters a four-way stop or an enforcement officer, how will it react? These are all appropriate questions that – as of today – have yet to be answered.

There is no doubt that tractor trailers are becoming a lot “smarter.” Today’s big rig has transformed into a rolling computer, much like modern passenger cars are. They are now fed by dozens of sensors, computers, and telematics devices. While trucking companies and manufacturers have found solutions to these technological problems, the next step will be figuring out levels of autonomy and what the protocols will be for accessing and handling the data required to manage autonomous driving.

Today, there are numerous devices on trucks, some of which are connected and some not. The ELD Mandate has further complicated that picture. Fleets are now using computerized dispatch information and historical reporting and analysis. With so many systems being implemented, how well does integration proceed? While some motor carriers are using comprehensive fleet management systems, not everyone is yet on board.

Imagine for one second a landscape where an onboard computer is dispatching load and efficiency information to the truck driver, all the while it is sending maintenance and safety data back to the home office. You may also have AI analyzing the information and a blockchain setup recording it. How would all these systems be integrated within an autonomous framework?

While technology and mobile communications and telematics vendors have provided some incremental advances, there still is some work to do where connecting APIs to different software systems is concerned. Truck drivers and home office dispatchers must be able to make sense of all the data coming and going.

Several Phases of Automation Integration

For automation to become truly integrated into how fleets work, it must be implemented in phases. The first phase will, of course, include the truck driver in the cab while advances are made in how “smartly” the truck operates. Phase 1 will focus less on actual automation and more on the truck driver’s experience. How a truck driver operates should be significantly improved through Phase 1 automation.

Incoming and outgoing data can be used to manage platooning, parking, and routing around inclement weather. The system could essentially “look ahead” to determine if there is a road closure, bad traffic, or other hazards. It could also take hours of service into account, with its code easily changed should federal law be changed on the matter.

In fact, a lot of these integrated technologies have already been developed by manufacturers. What we are seeing now are trucking companies and other players increasingly moving towards defining what automation will look like. What are the current integrations and how will they work functionally when the industry transitions into Phase 2. Furthermore, what does Phase 2 look like?

Phase 2 integration is still a way off and it will focus on command and control. While Phase 1 focuses on how the technology can assist the truck driver, Phase 2 will look at how the truck driver can assist the technology. It is important to note that a truck driver is still required in both scenarios. Other questions that will be pertinent as interested parties begin to operate within Phase 2 will be:

  • Who manages the trips?
  • Who schedules the pickups?
  • How do the connected devices communicate with each other?
  • How are disruptions handled?
  • How will the processes be made efficient?

These are just a sampling of the many questions that will arise as further integration between man and machine occurs within the trucking sector. When an autonomous truck arrives at the gate of a distribution center, what will it do? How will an autonomous truck be detained?

Many consider the answers to these questions solved by including the truck driver in on-road and arrival situations. Autonomous technologies are optimized for highway travel, but once the vehicle exits the highway and begins making its way to the destination, the truck driver is perfectly poised to take over and manage that portion of the trip.

There can even be situations where multiple truck drivers are used for specific legs. Information on the truck drivers can be connected to load type. Of course, all this communication requires seamless access to the home office. Perhaps this is where multiple-level client integration ill become important.

Still Many Challenges

While the industry has made great strides in outlining how it plans to deal with autonomous technologies, there is still a long way to go, with many challenges still facing full-scale adoption. While we are already seeing Level 1 and 2 automation, getting to Levels 3, 4, and 5 are going to be far more difficult. Level 5 automation represents full automation with zero human interaction required.

Many industry insiders predict we will not reach Level 5 automation until after 2025, perhaps even closer to 2030. There are simply far too many unanswered questions, from a safety and productivity perspective. As one question is answered, five more pop up.

How will an autonomous vehicle react to someone disobeying the laws of the road? What if an autonomous vehicle comes to a stop and is programmed not to move until all other vehicles come to a complete stop, but none of them do? The vehicle could be sitting for a long time.

Questions like these necessitate the need for human intervention. Yet, with innovation happening at a breakneck pace, the industry has got to stat figuring out how to deal with these problems as they arise. While we are still in the infancy of these changes, trucking is going to grow up where autonomous truck driving is concerned. What kind of adult will it be when that happens? Only time will tell.

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