Driverless trucks: Coming soon to a highway near you?

Autonomous technologies not enough to overcome the many variables of the road, experts say

Autonomous trucks
Courtesy of NVIDIA

From songs about lonely truck drivers longing for home, to movies about truckers on a mission – the U.S. trucking industry not only delivers 10.5 billion tons of freight per year, but has become an integral part of our popular culture. Is the industry poised to transition from “18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses” to a combination of C-3PO, the Jetsons and RoboCop?

Last week, U.S. chipmaker NVIDIA announced that it’s working with PACCAR, a Bellevue-based truck manufacturer, on developing solutions for autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, in October, Uber conducted a pilot of a driverless semi, which traveled from Ft. Collins to Colorado Springs to deliver 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer.

While both initiatives feature driverless technology, neither are passengerless – and that’s the crux of the situation, according to Greg Reisnaur, who owns both Elite Truck School and ETS Transport in Hillsboro, Oregon.

We already see technology making drivers’ duties easier and the vehicle safer, similar to what’s happened in the airline industry,” said Reisnaur. “But there are too many variables, like loading and unloading, weather conditions, road construction… I don’t see how you get the driver out of the equation completely.”

Reisnaur worked for Consolidated Freightways for 17 years before starting his school and trucking company nearly 15 years ago. He runs 12 to 15 curtain vans on the I-5 corridor from Canada to San Diego, supervises four trainers, teaches part-time and serves as a trucking industry expert witness for regional attorneys.

Vancouver’s VanPort Trucking owner Mark Cash sees autonomous trucking mainly used for dedicated “terminal to terminal” routes using freeways. For his business, he said, which specializes in hauling flatbed freight to and from “odd locations and job sites,” in Washington and Oregon, driverless technology “won’t trickle down to us in my lifetime.”

There are some advantages to making trucks more autonomous, such as reducing driver fatigue and driver error (which are leading causes of the annual 330,000 trucks crashes, which kill 4,000 people and injure 100,000 more). Trucks equipped with forward collision avoidance and automatic braking could cut the number of accidents even further.

Reducing the need for drivers could also address the current – and growing – shortage of commercial drivers. The industry has about 48,000 fewer drivers than available driver jobs, and the American Trucking Association estimates that the industry will need more than 96,000 new drivers annually for the next 10 years to keep pace with consumer spending.

“It’s a challenge to find qualified drivers,” said Cash, whose fleet consists of 16 trucks. He added that getting “paid to see the country” isn’t as attractive as long-haul companies would have you believe.

“You’re living in an 8×3 space and don’t see home for two months at a time, and work 60 hours a week,” Cash said. “I’m in the industry, and I would never do it.”

Reisnaur said that companies are fighting to get qualified drivers, recruiting aggressively at his school even before drivers finish their training. But driverless trucks could change the nature of who pursues truck driving as a career. Typically considered a blue-collar job, piloting a future, computerized truck might well be perceived as a “technology” job.

“Most drivers are in their 50s, so getting millennials interested in this industry is critical,” said Reisnaur.

It is also estimated that self-driving trucks could cut fuel bills by 4-7 percent through efficient acceleration, braking and idling management. This could represent a significant savings, since trucking consumes 54.3 billion gallons of fuel annually. Also, trucks that can cruise nearly 24/7 could dramatically lower freight costs.

But driverless trucks raise some legitimate concerns in the industry as well. Upfront costs right now are high, adding at least $30,000 to the base purchase price of a big rig (usually about $150,000 each). And this doesn’t include inspection, maintenance or updates.

“It will take a long time to overcome the up-front costs, and you’ll still have manpower involved on both the front end and back end,” said Cash. “The truck won’t close its doors and get out of a crowded parking lot on its own.”

Security is another issue.

“Autonomous vehicles put freight at risk,” said Nathan Stahlman, COO at Vancouver-based Instructional Technologies, Inc., which is the largest provider of online learning for the transportation industry, training an average of 4,000 drivers per day and soon to give its 10-millionth lesson.

Of course, safety is another primary factor keeping a driver in the cab – even if that truck is able to roll down the road on autopilot. Cash pointed out electronics are quicker and more accurate than humans. For example, sensors can detect lane departure and react faster than a driver. And he is confident that as autonomous vehicles become more mainstream, the technology will include redundancy that can prevent catastrophes.

“A 40-ton missile with no brakes – that will never happen; no engineer wants their name on that,” said Cash, who admits he’s a fan of new technology. In business since 1981, he has installed fleet tracking devices in his trucks, which helps him educate drivers about reducing excessive idling, speeding and other inefficient or dangerous driver behaviors. He has also adopted automatic transmissions across his fleet.

“A lot of companies have fought using technology because they think it will not be efficient,” agreed Resinaur. “I have always embraced technology, and have yet to embrace a piece of technology that wasn’t worth every penny. Those that don’t embrace technology will be left behind.”

Stahlman pointed out that there are societal issues at stake as well. For example, he asked, what happens when a driverless truck determines that an accident is unavoidable – either the truck and cargo will be destroyed, or a minivan carrying four people. Are we comfortable with letting a computer calculate which is worth more?

One thing is for sure – none of the business owners interviewed for this article are worried that driverless trucks will put them, or their drivers, out of business anytime soon.

“It’s new technology, there’s a lot of unknowns and there’s a huge learning curve,” said Cash. “The industry will need some sort of subsidies along the way for it to be cost-effective.

“Technology is always changing in the trucking industry, especially the last 20 years – the changes are just incredible,” added Reisnaur. “We make sure that we continue to train students on the equipment they are going to be driving in the industry.”

“For us,” said Stahlman, “there’s always going to be a need for training … There’s no shortage of new things.”

Trucking trivia

  • The trucking industry hauls 70 percent of the nation’s freight.
  • 3.5 million truck drivers pilot their charges over 230,000 miles of U.S. highway.
  • Truck drivers get paid an average of $40,000 per year.
  • The average long-haul truck averages 101,000 miles per year. 15 percent to 25 percent of those miles are driven empty.
  • From the moment the brakes are applied in a semi traveling 55 mph, it takes well over the length of a football field for the vehicle to stop. There are only six inches of lane on either side of a truck.
  • Trucks weigh 40 tons, with the momentum of 25 Honda Accords.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.