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The Latest Developments In Autonomous Trucking

It is one of the hottest topics in trucking today: Autonomous and semi-autonomous big rigs. It has been a topic that has gone through a series of ups and down. One day pundits seem breathless about the potential then the next day it still appears many years off. No matter what side you come down on, there has been no shortage of material on the topic.

Latest news on autonomous trucking comes out of Washington D.C., where regulators and lawmakers are trying to figure out just how to create a legal framework that will govern the deployment of autonomous vehicles on our nation’s roads and highways. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) deputy administrator Heidi King recently stated that the timing may be premature to regulate self-driving vehicles.

In a statement, King referred to the technology as “nascent” and wants to see more development within the space before looking at regulations. Still, the agency did say they are continuing to watch how autonomous technology develops and will act when the time is right. Still, that does not mean that the feds are hands-off on this issue.

The NHTSA may be biding its time before moving, but the Department of Transportation (DOT), in partnership with private stakeholders, is taking an active approach in finding solutions that let the federal government regulate the issue, as opposed to the states themselves. With a nationwide set of standards guiding the issue, there will be less regulatory fragmentation.

A summary list of meetings involving DOT officials, industry, labor, and advocacy groups shows that top issues under discussion are social, safety, and legal. Released by the market publication Insurance Journal, the report singles out 10 to 15 critical questions that must be answered before autonomous vehicles are given leeway on the nation’s roads.

The report goes on to note that safety integration, privacy, and cybersecurity. Some potential benefits of the technology included the ability for autonomous vehicles to self-report accidents and transmit data that can be used to respond to emergency situations. Yet, while the capability is there, at this time there is no requirement mandating that it must be used within these technologies.

Yet, capitalism always moves forward. Companies are hard at work determining the efficacy of these technologies in the real world. Automakers and technology companies such as General Motors, Daimler, and Waymo are all testing autonomous technologies. Yet, with the regulatory framework not keeping up, how will companies deploy these technologies?

Companies Moving Forward

Welcome to Ontario, California, where two 20-something entrepreneurs have decided to take on Waymo. Called Embark, the fledgling operation has outfitted Peterbilt trucks with a bevy of sensors and computing technology.

Because it is illegal otherwise, an operator’s hands must be on the wheel at all times, but otherwise Embark’s trucks are able to technically drive themselves from Ontario to Phoenix on a run. While the company is still working on being able to bring these commercial motor vehicles to market, they are rushing to move in on Waymo’s territory.

Fortunately, bay area venture capital firms are rushing in with money, as the company has now raised nearly $77M in funding. Currently, the fleet has five trucks, but they will use the venture capital funds to expand to 100 trucks. Each truck uses lidar sensors, cameras, radar, and an advanced computing system.

Earlier this year one of their trucks completed a run from California to Florida. The company has already put the vehicles into use – with truck drivers – on the route between California and Arizona. Yet this isn’t the only company making moves in this space.

From Uber to Starsky Robotics and TuSimple, there are plenty of examples of big corporate money flowing into the semi-autonomous trucking space. And, of course, you cannot count out Waymo, who has the financial might and backing of Google’s Alphabet, Inc. We already saw Daimler show off their truck driver going down the highway without needing to interact with the truck until it pulls off of the highway and onto a local road. The technologies are here, and they are viable. Mass production has begun.

Also using customized Peterbilt rigs, Waymo has been running freight for Google’s Atlanta-based logistics unit. In the meantime, Uber has suspended all autonomous vehicle testing after one of their autonomous SUVS struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Uber did, however, buy the autonomous truck startup company Otto. It could be that as they get their system to a level that the likelihood of injury is nonexistent, we could see their technologies see widespread adoption.

So, does all of this mean we will see autonomous trucks across the nation’s roads and highways? Not exactly.

There is still little consensus among industry insiders, government regulators, and anyone else with a stake in the sector, on when autonomous fleets will become a reality. While it appears long-haul routes are tailor-made for autonomous applications, much must still be done on the technological and regulatory front before this dream becomes a reality.

How the Industry Could Change

The trucking industry is not without its challenges. With the trucking employment squeeze being driven by a severe labor shortage, which is driving up costs and delivery times, there isn’t much flexibility within the sector. Add in diesel, which is hovering around $3 a gallon and you have a recipe for disaster. But what does this have to do with autonomous trucking?

With autonomous rigs (with truck drivers) already on the nation’s roads and highways, some within the industry think they could help alleviate some of the problems facing the industry today. First, they point to the ongoing labor shortage in the trucking industry. Rather than seeing autonomous trucks take jobs away from truck drivers, this technology will instead help supplement the labor force with automated systems.

As companies embrace this technology and upgrade their fleets, change will come gradually. Whether it be through semi-autonomous platoons or last-mile assistance systems, the technology will likely take hold. We may see it first on smaller vans and trucks, but eventually we could see it become part of every aspect of the trucking industry.

Autonomous technology can also help with handling regulatory changes. With truck drivers having to electronically log their time and comply with strict rules regarding how often they can drive and the makeup of their workday, this technology could help alleviate the strain. Truck drivers have been doubling up to keep vehicle utilization up, but that is not a sustainable situation.

Autonomous vehicles could also create a lower cost environment. Electric trucks – by virtue of their design – come in with a lower per mile cost than their diesel counterparts. If you examine the 2018 Black & Veatch Smart Cities and Utilities Report, trucking companies were most concerned about initial investment costs to upgrade to an electric fleet.

Fortunately, battery technologies continue to build to scale and prices are dropping. Financing options for new equipment have also been becoming more readily available to fleets both large and small. As the economy improves, more companies will access these technologies, even further dropping prices and integration costs.

Many were surprised when Tesla recently announced that its entry-level semi-autonomous semi truck will cost $100,000 less than anticipated. With costs dropping for technologies critical to this equipment, industry adoption seems like a foregone conclusion. Pilot projects are popping up all over the country and trucking companies, OEMs and technology providers are teaming up to streamline operations and create consistent standards for new technologies.

So, what is next for these technologies?

The Future of Autonomous

Next up for the industry will be dealing with the AV system that handles trip transitions between driver safety and automated system. Will we see a network of “smart truck stops” pop up across the country? These truck stops could come equipped with high-power charging stations and built at points along the highway that ensure no truck runs out of charge.

As fleets transition from diesel-powered to electric, you will see a lot of usage transition from fuel to megawatt hours of electricity. Will our power grid be able to evolve to handle the load? Things like on-site energy storage and local power generation will have to become commonplace to help distribute the massive power requirements that will come from the transition.

Finally, expect to see lots of “transportation-as-a-service” companies popping up offering innovative ways to assist motor carriers. From point-to-point distribution to new pay models and special leasing contracts, the new transportation software sector will lead the way to helping model electric and autonomous fleet makeups.

Imagine using an app on your phone to summon your smart truck. Those days might not be too far off. Yet we will continue to see needed manpower to ensure these trucks remain safe on our nation’s roads. While the government, states, and trucking companies adjust to a potentially semi-autonomous future, critical issues will need to be resolved. Will the questions be answered? Only time will tell.

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