The hype around autonomous driving technology is proliferating – especially with the promise of increased productivity and cost savings – but experts disagree on whether consumers or the commercial sector will be the embrace the technology first.
Darren Gosbee, vice president of powertrain and advanced engineering for Navistar International Corp., does not expect commercial fleets to be the first adopters.
During a June panel at the TU-Automotive Detroit in Novi, Mich., he referred the title of his session – Commercial Vehicles Lead the Way with Autonomy – as an “oxymoron” aimed at the buildup surrounding autonomous deployment in commercial trucks.
But Navistar still has skin in the game, especially as the interest in self-driving big rigs intensifies amidst competitors. The company’s new line of International LT over-the-road trucks will include a predictive cruise control system that “looks” ahead of the truck, recognizes the terrain and continuously calculates the most efficient speed and gear for optimal fuel economy.
Aside from staving off competition, Gosbee recognizes other potential benefits that autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, could bring the trucking industry.
Navistar’s customers are facing an “extreme difficulty” in recruiting and retaining new drivers, Gosbee said. “Within the next 7 or 8 years, the driver shortage is going to be a really big problem.”
The industry is worried that as experienced drivers leave, their replacements will have fewer skills and crash rates could increase, he said.
In the years leading up to full autonomy, ADAS could be used to curb those risks and reduce the number of accidents that occur each year, Gosbee said.
“There’s a lot of focus on [the trucking industry] right now, but the technology will come from the passenger car,” Gosbee told Trucks.com.
“Every truck is different. So the easiest path, in my opinion, is passenger cars first and then commercial vehicles,” he said.
Felipe Smolka, a connected vehicles expert at IBM, disagreed.
The commercial market for autonomous vehicles will develop faster than the consumer segment, Smolka told Trucks.com.
Commercial users will see productivity gains or costs savings that will make the added expense of autonomous driving technology worthwhile.
“I think the commercial side is the first adopter,” Smolka said.
Any added expense for something unessential to the daily life of a consumer will be questioned, he said.
Dillon Blake, senior director of business development at Runzheimer, a mobile workforce solutions provider, is keeping a close eye on the financial aspects of autonomy. He anticipates a notable savings for companies that own and operate autonomous fleets for employees to conduct daily business.
“Rather than giving five people five cars at $30,000 a pop, if you can get one autonomous vehicle to do the job for those five people, that’s a great idea,” Blake said.
This is far from an easy concept. Fleets will have to be much more strategic in determining how and when company vehicles are utilized, he said.
If one salesperson has three stops in a day that last roughly two hours, the shared vehicle would have to coordinate pick up and drop off logistics among four other people also working in the field.
“You’ve got a scheduling [and] geographical-type scenario that has to be better managed,” Blake said.
Fleets will also have to consider the everyday risks associated with traffic.
“If someone hits an autonomous vehicle and that’s your one vehicle for that area, now what?” Blake said.
Devising a back-up plan for a shared vehicle that is unexpectedly impaired and unable to fulfill its schedule will throw a monkey wrench into a company’s operations, he said.
But until autonomous technology gains support from governments on a local and national scale, such discussions regarding execution remain theoretical.
“I think there is a very big component that maybe we’re taking a little bit too lightly, and it’s the whole legislation aspect of it,” said Alex Thibault, vice president of business development for Vulog, a car-sharing technologies company.
The adoption among states will take time, but some are embracing the change. In June, Audi demonstrated self-driving technology in Albany, New York, becoming the first company to win a license for automated vehicle testing in the state.
“Audi, with the partnership of forward-thinking states like New York, are at the forefront of defining the future of transportation,’’ said Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America. “That kind of innovation only happens with industry and government working hand-in-hand toward a shared goal of safer roads.”
Earlier this year, California amended regulations that initially required self-driving vehicles to have an onboard driver while undergoing tests. With 21 manufacturers trialing autonomous technology in the state – including Alphabet, Inc.’s Mountain View, Calif.-based Waymo Division – as well as the development of more sophisticated systems “capable of operating without the presence of a driver,” California’s Department of Motor Vehicles reformed its position.
Nevada deployed a fully autonomous, electric shuttle in January on a public street in downtown Las Vegas, which was the first vehicle of its kind to travel on U.S. roadways.
The Coalition, which was founded last year by Ford Motor Co., Lyft, Uber, Volvo Car Group and Waymo – “is focused on enabling the development and deployment of Level 4 and Level 5 fully self-driving vehicles” on a federal level, according to David Strickland, the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who serves as general counsel to the group.
Strickland testified Tuesday on behalf of the Coalition before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in favor of self-driving vehicle legislation.
The Coalition believes that “fully self-driving vehicles are very likely to significantly reduce fatal traffic crashes because they remove human error from the driving process entirely,” Strickland said. “Self-driving vehicles also hold the promise to enhance mobility for the disabled and elderly, reduce congestion and improve productivity.”
But some safety groups are weary that the proposed federal legislation would prevent states from passing individual safety standards.
“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said John M. Simpson, advocate for Consumer Watchdog.
But discussions around self-driving technology are still in their early days.
“If local governments are still today grappling with Uber, how long do you think it’s going to take for organizations on the local and state level – and national, federal level – to look at vehicles that drive themselves?” Thibault said.