Drivers, Disco and Dinosaurs – what do all three have in common?

Extinction! Well, at least one would think this with all the hype around driverless vehicles happening in the near future. Transparency alert: Of course, I don’t really mind the idea of dinosaurs being extinct, especially after the Jurassic Park series. As for disco, it just never was my cup of tea.

Drivers, on the other hand … I’m not so quick to proclaim the demise of the truck driving profession in the face of the autonomous future. Drivers have been, are, and will be the key to trucking transportation for a good while to come.

Why are drivers going to be around for longer than the technologically roaring 2020s? A few reasons come to mind:

  • First, while there have been some impressive demonstrations of “driverless” technology – there were several that took center stage in 2016– these have been just that, demonstrations. It takes extensive, integrated development work to go from a mere demonstration, where you can control most of the variables, to commercialization in the real world, where you can’t control the variables. 
  • Second, the focus of a lot of these new technology companies and their automated/ autonomous truck applications is really only on one application – interstate highways (better known as divided, limited-access roadways.) It’s not the city driving – like in package delivery – that’s being automated. If you’re a local P&D driver, I believe it’s safe to say that they’ll be no automated function here until we truly get to Level 5. The system will still require a driver to get the vehicle from the terminal to the limited-access highway, and then from the limited-access highway back to the terminal. Let’s not forget that it will also require a driver, along with their GPS, to figure out a better route when the limited-access highway is backed up with traffic. And then, likely, to drive the truck on the state route that gets him/her around the traffic jam!
  • Next, the automated/autonomous ecosystem. Yes, technology makes the vehicle autonomous, but it’s everything around it – from overall safety and societal acceptance to customers and regulators – that puts the technology on the road. Federal and state regulators want to make sure the technology isn’t going to create issues when it’s on the road – especially as far as safety for everyone else on the road is concerned. Also, not all of society is ready or interested in vehicles that drive themselves. Plus, vehicle operators who purchase the technology are going to expect to see some kind of financial savings (ROI) for using the technology – if it doesn’t pay for itself relatively quickly, they are not going to buy it. (Ask yourself, would you add a $30,000 or so adaptive cruise control with steering to your truck so you might be able to leave the seat and get a coffee? Probably not – it would be one expensive cup of coffee!) And, if the driver can’t use the time not driving to do something else, due to the current regulation, the potential productivity enhancement of automated/autonomous driving won’t be there – and the Feds need to let that happen.
  • And finally, weather and infrastructure. If the system can’t see the lines due to pooling water creating issues, or snowfall, the system isn’t going to function unless it has an alternative source of information. GPS isn't accurate enough to position a truck in the center of a lane, so there must be some type of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), or vehicle-to-infrastructure V2I communication to get this done. And while we have a notice of proposed regulation for a mandate requiring V2V communications on vehicles, there’s nothing yet on requiring this technology for commercial vehicles. (Current expectations call for something in 2018; however, the new administration’s point of view on regulations may significantly slow that process.) And, right now there is nothing on V2I requirements, though this will be needed to help ensure vehicles know where they are in terms of lanes on the road. Bad weather is a constant possibility, so we’ll have to build up the infrastructure to deliver a means of ensuring lines are visible, even when they’re not.

Now don’t get me wrong, evolution will occur. But it will be just that – evolution as opposed to revolution. There will be ongoing major and incremental improvements to advanced driver assistance systems over the next 20-30 years that will help drive automated trucks forward to eventual autonomy. Note the word automated – not autonomous. A human driver will still be involved in the operation of the vehicle as this evolution occurs. After all, these are driver assistance systems, not driver replacement systems.

So what can a driver expect to see in the future? For starters, technology will continue to advance – making the job easier and, most likely, safer. Today, a collision mitigation system cuts throttle and applies the brakes – controlling deceleration. In the future, we’ll see more acceleration and deceleration control. Also, we’ll add steering to the mix – for such things as yard maneuvering (moving and parking the tractor-trailer at the dock and bringing it back to the driver) and highway pilot (or adaptive cruise control with steering – tractor-trailers on freeways that are able to steer, brake, and accelerate on their own in this application). Expect to see more sensors integrated, along with various functions – such as collision mitigation, platooning, and sideswipe mitigation – as the systems continue to evolve. Again, these technologies are not taking the place of the driver, but helping the driver do their job safely.

Regulations will also have to change to allow the productivity potential for automated systems to be realized. This could mean drivers able to drive longer days because they are able to take rest breaks while the truck is travelling autonomously down the road. As a CDL holder, personally, I’m not sure drivers can do more than a 14-hour day, with 11 hours of driving safely, but something will likely change to help deliver on the productivity promise of automated/autonomous driving. Again, this is not an aspect I’m expecting soon, as the wheels of government tend to turn slowly at best. And, until we get to the highest automated level – where a driver is not needed in any circumstance for the vehicle to get from point A to point B – drivers will be needed to take over control when the system needs them. All this means drivers will keep their place behind the wheel, even when the automated system is operating… just in case.

Speaking of driverless…when do we get there? Projections regarding Level 5 driving are all over the place, but today, 2050 seems a likely timeframe as to when we’ll start seeing more and more truly driverless applications happen. Again, it’s not like anyone is going to shut off human-driven vehicles, but it’s possible that we may see a start to limits on where these vehicles can travel. As with any projection, there are always things that can change the trajectory of development – either speed it up, or slow it down. For example, if vehicles aren’t communicating with each other and the infrastructure, as noted, or is inadequate or absent, it might be difficult for there to be actual autonomous trucks. Or, if a new technology innovation doesn’t work as planned –it is a factor or cause of a very bad crash, prompting and legislators and/or regulators to decide that this needs to be more controlled through performance testing and validation -- this also could slow the process. Along the same lines, a technological advancement could leapfrog development – such as newer, more high-speed computing chips, cooling systems, or sensors, and move true autonomous vehicles to commercialization. 

So what should a driver, or someone who is thinking about being a driver, do? Our industry, and our economy, needs drivers. None of has that proverbial crystal ball to know what the future will bring, and when, so don’t let that stand in the way of a fulfilling career. If you want to drive, drive. For those of you who are already drivers, for now, don’t give up your CDL anytime soon – I’m not!

Bendix Blog

Technical and industry insight from OUR experts.

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