Autonomous Trucking and the Future

Trucks resting at Bonneville

I recently applied to a few positions in the autonomous trucking industry and I have a few impressions that I think need to be explored and tackled by the industry.

If I apply for a job outside the normal industries or markets where I would usually work, I will do a lot of research so that I one, fully understand the sector in which I could possibly work, and two, make sure it impresses me with stability, growth, and will provide me a path to retirement as I get older. For the autonomous trucking industry, I did just that and what I discovered from the perimeter is that the existing trucking industry has very mixed emotions about the introduction of autonomous technology. The business side loves the idea because it will increase productivity, decrease fuel costs, and especially, decrease accidents. The truck drivers, in general seems to be a mixture of people who think it’s going to replace them, those that just don’t think it’s not viable due to myriad reasons, and that small segment that seems to embrace it.

If I were working in a strategic position in marketing or business development for an AV trucking company, I would want to win over as many of the drivers as I can and help ease fears amongst the ones that seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how AV can be a benefit and how they could potentially make more money driving autonomous trucks and be safer.

Articles about level 5, driverless trucks scare people the most, and this as I see it, is the origination of the majority of fears and misconceptions. We always see news articles and stories on TV about the most dramatic examples of everything, and showing a fully automated delivery truck without a driver is just not going to be a reality for a long, long time. There are so many challenges to overcome with the technology, legislation, and implementation that when you see where company X is going to have autonomous delivery, you have to understand that’s going to be like gig-speed broadband — do you have it in your town, county, or even state? Many regions of the country don’t even have cell phone service and a lot of these AV trucking systems rely on such things to communicate and monitor. If you don’t have cell-phone service at any level, don’t expect AV anything for some time.

The impression is that once company X implements the technology that it will be ubiquitous, instantaneous, and absolute and as with anything, that’s just not going to be the case. Please remember that we have many states that do not have the same laws and do not act or move in the same ways. Little to nothing happens at the federal scale gets implemented like this.

In AV trucking, the middle-mile is the main target for the majority of companies and level 3-4 autonomous driving is going to be the first, widely successful adaptation of the technology.

The first thing you have to understand is that AV is hard, super hard. When it comes to driving about a very dynamic and highly unpredictable environment like a city or town, the biggest challenges are to be found. In fact, think of it like this: If you go from Atlanta to Los Angeles, you’ll find a dozen different driving styles in between, as well as different road hazards, driving conditions due to weather, interaction with wildlife, to even the amount of bugs that are present — a truck in some parts of California will have to clean it’s sensors and cameras a lot less than one in the deep south because there’s just a huge difference in the amount of bugs.

Aside from those dynamic variables are numerous other challenging situations and factors that make AV for cars and especially big class 8 trucks, where everything is heavier, bigger, more expensive, and harder to control, even more difficult to develop and implement. So for now, what you should understand is that it’s not going to be an overnight change and it’s still a long way from fully level 5, class 8 trucks being the norm.

What truck drivers should try to embrace is the idea that you’re going to be able to drive way more miles with a level 4 system in a truck over a year and that can mean more money while saving money on fuel, and safer. For many years to come, there will be drivers in the cab actively watching over the AV system and making sure everything works correctly, and being there to handle the problems that can’t be solved automatically like damage to a sensor or camera, or even cleaning those hard to remove bug remains from them. We’ve all hit one of those bugs that the windshield wipers couldn’t easily remove and had to stop at a gas station so we could scrape away the remanents. That’s also not to mention that as the technology is, and will be in development perpetually, that having drivers on board will still be a required and if anything, it will create even more jobs as the industry expands and adoption grows.

Again, I want to stress that the biggest application for AV trucking is in class 8 semi trucks and the target segment is the middle-mile. When it comes to transporting difficult loads, we’re going to need a human at the wheel for a long time. There are also other areas where you’re going to encounter hard to automate segments and at best, level 3-4 will only be applicable. What that means is a more diverse and dynamic trucking industry where you just don’t drive from point A to B and then back home. The middle-mile segment only covers the easiest to transport portions of logistics. A human driver will be waiting at the end of the trip for the AV truck and again, for a long time to come, that AV truck will have a human riding along.

If you want an even more positive spin on this, one could say that being a truck driver will become even more interesting as the largest, most boring portion of the job will be handled by an AV system which will need human interaction in new, but still classic ways. As a truck driver, you’ll essentially be supporting a robotic machine which could have brand new avenues for you and your career. The industry is going to need people who not only know how to drive a truck but have knowledge of robotics and I understand that some people don’t want to learn new things to do old jobs, but to me, that’s fascinating and the future meeting reality, right before our eyes.

What you will begin to see is the trucking industry maturing and adapting and even more jobs being created. You won’t have to get a degree in engineering and robotics to work in because there will be many associated jobs that are created at end points and for the other, not automated segments. So don’t fear it but understand that this technology isn’t going to replace you, but augement and make your working environment better, safer, and more profitable for everyone, including the drivers. I’ve read posts and replies and seen videos where drivers ask “why not just pay us more per mile?” Well what if you could cover more miles in less time and use less fuel and be safer overall? Because that’s the real benefits to AV trucking and will be for a long time to come. Don’t feel fear when you see company X is implementing a driverless trucking system but understand that even if they are it won’t be everywhere and it won’t replace you; your jobs are going to be safer, and secure, for generations to come.

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