The action in autonomous trucks keeps moving forward at a rapid pace. For example, a few weeks ago ride sharing service Uber announced it was acquiring Otto, which is developing autonomous truck driving technology. Started by ex-Google managers and less than a year old, Otto was acquired for some $680 million, with the idea that eventually the autonomous truck technology would be married with Uber software for matching shippers with carriers, similar to what it does now with ride sharing for consumers.In fact, so much us going on with driverless cars and trucks that it is very difficult to keep up with the developments. To that end, Seth Clevenger, the technology editor of the American Trucking Association’s Transport Topics magazine, sat down for an interview with Michael Baudendiste, an analyst with Wall Street investment firm Stifel.

 

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Autonomous Truck by Otto

Below are some of the highlights of that interview:
The first generation of platooning from Peloton Technology (a company in which Volvo has an investment), is expected to launch next year, but will not include automated steering: Platooning involves a convoy of trucks automatically following a lead truck using electronic communication to automate following distance and braking. The platoon is said to improve safety, since the trailing trucks are not actively driven while in a platoon. Fuel efficiency is also improved as much as 10%, since the trailing trucks can travel closer together than normal and thus draft off the lead truck.

But Clevenger says platooning is not without challenges. That includes the need to change state and federal laws regarding the distances between trucks on the road. He also says public acceptance could be an issue because it may be difficult to exit a highway when a convoy of tractor semi-trailers is in the right lane. While the first generation of platooning technology will not incorporate automated steering in the lead vehicle, future generations of the technology are expected to have that capability.

Automated driving technologies are not likely to displace the need for truck drivers in the near term: Clevenger says it is a common misconception that drivers will no longer be necessary when automatic driving features are more readily available. The near-term reality, he says, is that while automated features should make the driving profession less grueling, drivers will still serve important functions.

For instance, a truck that was completely driverless would be more vulnerable to cargo theft. Also, the near-term versions of the automated technology are designed with the intention of drivers remaining vigilant enough to take control of the vehicle within five seconds if conditions arise that the computer has difficulty with, such as extreme weather. In addition, trucking automation technologies that are likely to be available near-term are designed for highway driving and drivers will need to take control before and after the highway portion of the trip. This, SCDigest notes, is the approach Otto has been taking.

For these reasons, labor unions that have not publically opposed the increase in automation in trucking; in fact, Clevenger says, in the near-term the added technology should make the job better without impairing employment levels.

Commercial vehicle OEMs and automotive OEMs are both investing heavily in vehicle automation, and technology introductions in the automotive space will be a major key to improving the public’s acceptance of trucking automation: The commuting public is becoming familiar with radar detection in driving applications in their personal vehicles, and Stifel believes that will be a major step toward acceptance of automation in commercial vehicles.

Just as importantly, Clevenger says the development of automated technology for passenger cars is likely to drive down the costs of the technology for commercial vehicles that are sold in smaller quantities.

Of the commercial vehicle OEMs, Daimler has been the most aggressivr in terms of demonstrating automated driving: Clevenger said Daimler recently put on the trucking equivalent of a Broadway show in Nevada to show off automated driving, and has also demonstrated platooning on the German Autobahn in traffic. While Daimler has clearly shown the most driverless technology in public, Clevenger says it is unclear if the company is far ahead of the pack or whether the other OEMs are just keeping their cards closer to the vest.

A key barrier to driverless trucks is how insurance will be handled: Clevenger noted that when a technology malfunction causes a crash, the question will be iwho is a fault: the truck OEM, the third party technology company, the driver, or the fleet owner? All of the above?

Stifel says one idea it has seen floated is that there would be no fault assigned in vehicle crashes that involved the malfunction of automated technology, so it is possible that insurance for autonomous vehicles could fall under a completely overhauled insurance system yet to be determined.

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication are technologies that can greatly improve safety and should be areas of growth: V2V technologies enable vehicles in the same vicinity to communicate with each other, so that for example a vehicle up ahead and out of sight could communicate that there is traffic ahead, or send a signal that a vehicle is in anotrht truck’s blind spot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking at requiring those technologies on light vehicles, and there is a proposal expected for commercial vehicles at some point.

A major challenge of automated steering is keeping the driver attentive for when he or she has to retake control of the vehicle: For instance, in the very high profile fatality involving an automatically steering Tesla car, it appears the driver may have been misusing the technology by not remaining attentive. Clevenger said it is human nature is to deal with the boredom of sitting in an automatically steering vehicle by reading text messages or playing games – activities which SCDigest believes would have to be banned for drivers.

So far, the reaction to autonomous driving technologies from fleets has been mixed: Even in the absence of regulatory and insurance hurdles, Clevenger says that acceptance from fleets of autonomous driving technology is not a given. As evidence, he cited the fact that collision avoidance technology is only on about 15% of new trucks currently despite having been available for some time.

The perception of a lack of reasonable cost payback for the added technology features may also be an impediment given that fleets may be disappointed that they will still have to pay driver wages as near-term (and SCDigest says likely even mid-term) technology advancements will still require drivers in the cabs. In addition, driving applications are far from uniform – fully autonomous driving may work great in a mining or military application, and platooning may work great on the open highway, but neither of those technologies may do much for local pickup and delivery.

So now you are up to speed. The technology is moving ahead at a rapid pace, but many hurdles outside the technology remain.

Source: Supply Chain Digest

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