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Sciences Academy Panel Sees Self-driving Trucks on Road in Five Years

Otto self driving truck driver window

Autonomous trucking is coming faster than expected – perhaps within five years, according to panelists at the Transportation Research Board’s 96th annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

The TRB event, which is a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, drew 13,000 engineers, planners and policy-makers to its five-day confab to discuss everything from asphalt paving to self-driving commercial trucks.

A marquee demonstration of a self-driving truck in Colorado last October provided a powerful argument that the rapidly-developing technology really works, two panelists emphasized.

“On Oct. 19, I was one of the biggest detractors of this technology,” said panelist Daniel Murray, vice president of research at the American Transportation Research Institute, or ATRI. “On Oct. 20, I drank the Kool-Aid.”

He became a believer when an autonomous truck operated by Uber subsidiary Otto delivered 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer 120 miles across Colorado – from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs – with no driver at the wheel, though one was in the cab.

“I moved my personal time line from 15-to-20 years up to five,” Murray said, referring to how soon he now believes self-driving trucks will be in commercial use.

The biggest issues are non-technology issues. Some state could say ‘We’re going to ban them’,” he told Trucks.com after the session.

“The U.S. DOT has just created and [appointed members to] a new advisory board on autonomous vehicles. That’ll dramatically speed things up. It’ll provide the expertise,” that regulators now lack, he told Trucks.com.

Mark Savage, deputy chief of the Colorado State Patrol, likewise was impressed with the beer delivery. He said that the self-driving Otto technology had quicker reaction times than he did.

The truck at one point sensed traffic ahead and slowed, so a car that was passing the truck would have room to decrease its speed and still pull in front of the truck.

“Before I saw the brake lights on the car, the [Otto] truck began to slow down,” he said. “The technology knew before I did.”

The beer run was made with a five-car state patrol escort – without flashing lights or sirens operating – between midnight to 3 a.m. when little other traffic was around.

Savage said Colorado law neither permits nor prohibits self-driving vehicles, so the state police decided it would be better to “be engaged with” the new technology than not.

He said the lesson he took from participating in the autonomous delivery was, “Manage and prepare for rapid pace of change, even if you don’t fully understand the technology. You might not fully understand the technology. And, I have to tell you, that’s OK. “

But the cost could be high, at least initially.

Panelist Chris Spear, of the American Trucking Associations, or ATA, said operators must see enough benefit to “pay $15,000 to $20,000” per truck for the autonomous technology. This includes the sensors and computers that keep the truck in its lane, yet let it steer around obstacles as needed, that brake it automatically and that drive it to fit into traffic flow.

An ATRI report last November – Identifying Autonomous Vehicle Technology Impacts on the Trucking Industry – predicted a cost of $23,400 per truck for fully-automated, or SAE Level 5, self-driving technology.

Fully-automated in this case references Level 5 under the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, classification system of six different levels of vehicle autonomy based on the amount of necessary driver intervention.

The report cautioned that the real-world cost could be higher: “These costs are mainly related to software, and do not include inspection, maintenance or updates.”

Murray told Trucks.com, “I think it’ll be closer to $40,000 initially,” until autonomous driving systems are more widely produced and enjoy economies of scale.

Spear told Trucks.com that even at those rates, the improvement in safety, fuel economy and route efficiency should convince even smaller owner-operator outfits that autonomous trucking is a benefit.

Anthony Levandowski, chief executive of Uber-owned Otto, showed slides illustrating that 6.9 billion hours and 3.1 billion gallons of fuel are wasted per year, so the opportunities to save big are tempting.

And autonomous trucks can play a huge role in those savings, Levandowski said.

He said automated driving, in Uber’s view and his, “should be as practical as running water, available to everybody everywhere.”

Beyond the trucks, he said, Uber is working to streamline the process of brokering loads. His data show that it currently takes 20 phone calls and four person-hours to wrangle a load, a truck and a driver.

“Imagine if it took you 20 phone calls to get a cab,” he said.

The Uber system should be able to locate drivers and trucks that are empty or under-loaded and route them quickly to a pickup-up point. His data show that 15 percent to 25 percent of truck miles are driven empty, creating a sizable pool of drivers and companies looking for things to haul.

Panelist Sandra Larson, of the Iowa Department of Transportation, said there will be some public anxiety about “an 80,000-pound autonomous truck,” but that most public reaction she’s seen is “very positive.”

She said she was surprised to find during her research how many states already have self-driving projects and demonstrations underway.

The panel on Autonomous Trucks: Realities and Myths, was in front of a standing-room-only audience of over 250 people and provoked enough questions and comments afterwards that spawned a scrum of hand-shakers and info-seekers even after the official end to the question and answer session.

Related: Trucking Industry Gets a Glimpse of its Automated Future at CES 2017