Written by Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Self-driving trucks. Just say those three words in trucking circles and you are likely to get an earful about how this technology should never replace having a human driver behind the wheel.
Many from the trucking industry have been quoted in various articles discussing autonomous technology and either equivocated or were downright hostile to the idea that an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer could safely maneuver on our roadways.
Until I met with a team of engineers from Otto, the San Francisco autonomous truck driving technology company recently purchased by Uber, I too was a skeptic. The company, founded in January by Anthony Levandowski, a veteran of Google’s autonomous car division, and Lior Ron, previously in charge of Google Maps, is engineering kits that would turn existing trucks into autonomous vehicles. I got to see Otto’s self-driving truck in action. I am no longer a skeptic.
Although I’m not known as someone who rapidly embraces anything new – especially technology – I believe that as autonomous technology becomes marketable, owner-operators and small-business trucking fleets have the most to gain economically from this advance.
In the 1990 movie “Total Recall,” there are repetitive scenes involving an autonomously operated taxicab called Johnny Cab. That 1990 concept of a self-driving vehicle is nearing reality today. Although technological and regulatory hurdles still lie ahead, they will be solved.
As the generation that first watched the late 1960s television show “Star Trek,” we were exposed to future technologies that were not feasible during that era but are all too real 50 years later. Holograms, tablet computers, smartwatches, Bluetooth earpieces, lasers and the ubiquitous cellphone are all examples of technology available today that was foreshadowed on the sometimes goofy and at other times preachy space opera.
Having spent nearly 30 years driving a truck cross-country, I can’t count the amount of unproductive hours I spent waiting in queues with other drivers to use a pay phone at a truck stop. I have wasted so much time over the years repeatedly calling dispatch, a shipper or receiver for directions, or like ET – phoning home. Cellphone technology eliminated all that effort and improved my quality of life behind the wheel.
Many successful owner-operators today have truck cabs completely wired to the internet in order to manage dispatch chores, communicate with customers and stay in constant contact with family members. For all the kvetching about the difficulty of being a trucker, technology has had its positive impacts.
There was many a time during my trucking career when I needed to drive through the night in order to make sure my deliveries were on time the next morning. Frankly, being able to climb into the sleeper in Salt Lake City and wake up in Reno while on a run into Northern California would have been welcome. But back then, the only way to make that work would be to hire a co-driver. We are close to having the technology to provide me with a robotic co-driver.
There’s a great misunderstanding about how automated trucking would work. Many believe the development of self-driving truck technology is dependent on the vehicle being able to drive itself in urban settings. That’s years away. What is close is technology to guide vehicles on rural interstates. That’s where I see the real benefit. With electronic logging, a driver could shift control of the truck to its autopilot mode, sleep for several hours, check back in and be ready to navigate the vehicle through rush hour in some big city.
The trucking industry faces a shortage of drivers. I believe it is difficult to recruit younger people to the industry because they are not as willing as my generation to accept a lifestyle that makes it so difficult to have a normal family life. All the money in the world won’t change that dynamic if my assessment is correct. So how are trucking companies, both large and small, going to deal with this issue?
Technology that will allow a solo driver to become the equivalent of a team operation without the added employment cost of having another person in the truck is one answer. Sure, there will be the “trust” factor when climbing into the bunk while the truck rolls on with a digital brain at the controls. But the trust issue already exists today in human sleeper team operations.
Trucking faces numerous rulemakings that will reduce productivity, including electronic logging device regulations, the mandate to equip vehicles with speed-limiters and ever changing hours-of-service rules. Many of us believe these policies will add to delivery times and further exacerbate a shortage of people willing to accept the lifestyle of driving a truck.
But the fear that autonomous technology will significantly displace human drivers is a red herring. If people are unwilling to become truck drivers in the first place for whatever reasons, by definition they are not being displaced. This technology in its first generation will offer owner-operators and small-business trucking fleets an incredible opportunity to improve a driver’s home time, productivity and competitiveness.
A few years ago I participated in a demonstration of new on-board technologies deployed in Freightliner trucks. The truck had an automatic transmission, and I questioned an engineer about what I thought would be a fuel efficiency penalty by not having a manual transmission. My personal cars always had manual transmissions because they got better fuel mileage than automatics, hence I thought the same principle would apply.
“Think about what you are saying,” the engineer responded. “You are saying your mind can work faster than a computer when meshing gears. These trucks get superior mpg to anything you could achieve on your own.”
I’m not so arrogant as to believe I can think faster than a computer.
As a small-business trucking representative, one must be cautious about getting too far ahead of members on issues. Most trucking companies are small businesses operating 20 or fewer trucks. The quickening pace of technological advances can easily overwhelm them. But I believe there is too much fearmongering about the potential of autonomous driving technology. After all, when I was watching “Star Trek” 50 years ago, my father’s generation (he was a rocket scientist) was using slide rules to send humans to the moon and back safely.
With all the computer, sensor and digital technology that already exist today, autonomously driven trucks may be a smaller leap.
Editor’s note: Joe Rajkovacz is director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association, which is based in Upland, Calif. His background includes spending nearly 30 years as an active driver before spending 10 years working as an association representative in the trucking industry.