Driverless trucks can be safe and efficient
Critics argue the problem is rooted in pay. Raise the wages of truckers, they say, and others will be ready to hit the road, even with the sacrifices to family life. An American Trucking Associations survey released on Wednesday, however, suggested the problem goes beyond pay, particularly after Covid-19 sparked a pandemic of self-reflection on life priorities. The job description is austere: living in a truck for days while missing your kids’ games or school plays.
The good news for drivers is that salaries are going up. The ATA study showed that the annual salary of long-haul truck drivers rose to almost $70,000 in 2021, an 18% jump from 2019. The most interesting nugget from the survey was that the higher pay per kilometer allowed drivers to work less and be more at home. while earning the same amount of money, said Bob Costello, the trade group’s chief economist. “The idea that it’s just the salary ‘that keeps truckers off the road’ is wrong,” Costello said. Thus, a higher salary will not necessarily translate into enough drivers to meet demand.
The truck driver shortage is now over 80,000, and that is expected to double by 2030, according to the ATA. At the same time, trucking freight rates, including fuel surcharges, hit a record high in January in the spot market as demand outpaced capacity (they have cooled somewhat since then, with fuel dropped). Rising wages also put upward pressure on rates.
There is an obvious long-term solution to both of these problems: driverless trucks. But only if the industry starts off on the right foot with maximum transparency on its operations. If self-driving trucks are introduced cautiously, they can improve road safety and continue to promote the small business ownership that dominates the trucking industry.
They are already on the road. Companies like Aurora Innovation Inc., TuSimple Holdings Inc., Kodiak Robotics Inc. and several others are testing driverless trucks on US highways with a safety driver always behind the wheel.
Some of them, like Aurora, are planning drive-out operations in less than two years. The objective is laudable: to increase road safety while reducing the cost of transporting goods. The logical entry point for these driverless trucks will be the long-haul market, where trucking companies have the hardest time finding workers.
The gains from self-driving trucks go beyond a driver’s salary. For example, TuSimple said last year that its system saved more than 13% on fuel alone during a 30-month test period with United Parcel Service Inc., primarily because the trucks were running at a steady pace between 55 and 68 miles per hour. More importantly, the productivity gains are exponential because the trucks can operate virtually 24 hours a day and are not limited to the hours a driver can put in each day. And if accidents were to fall even into the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands that occur on American highways each year, the savings on insurance would be enormous.
The bar for safety will be set incredibly high, and the only way for autonomous trucking companies to gain public trust and support is with tremendous transparency about their operations. People need to know how the technology works and how it works before they unleash 80,000 pound robot trucks on the highways.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, backs the technology and has a tracking tool that lets people see where the tests are being taken. “Vehicle safety promises to be one of the biggest benefits of automation,” NHTSA says on its website. Higher levels of automation “remove the human driver from the chain of events that can lead to a crash”.
Any incident, such as an accident or near miss, should be reported and made public immediately. The Wall Street Journal earlier this month reported leaked video of an accident involving a TuSimple truck that unexpectedly swerved left on Interstate 10 and caused more damage to the image of driverless trucks. than in the truck. The safety driver was able to regain control after the truck veered sharply out of the middle lane of the three-lane freeway and hit a concrete barrier separating the oncoming lanes. No one was hurt. The same YouTube channel that made the accident public also posted a separate video of a truck driver unbuckling his seatbelt to reach an object and flipping his 18-wheeler.
TuSimple reported the crash to authorities and halted operations while investigating the cause, which the company attributed to human error when the computer system was improperly restarted and the truck received an old turn command. left. The company has upgraded the system to eliminate the possibility of the error reoccurring, chief executive Xiaodi Hou said on an Aug. 2 earnings conference call. In seven years and more than 8 million kilometers of road testing, this is the only accident for which the TuSimple system is responsible, Hou said.
The data provided by autonomous trucking companies must go beyond simply reporting accidents to authorities. Statistics should include how often and why safety drivers get behind the wheel and take over from the on-board computer, which receives information from a combination of sensors such as cameras, radar and lidar. The argument against providing this data is that the decision to intervene is subjective and that some drivers are more capricious than others. It shouldn’t matter. A clear, downward trend line of interventions – planned or unplanned – will show that safety drivers are gaining confidence in the automated systems they are testing.
There are other hurdles for self-driving trucks. For one, California does not allow driverless operations for vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds. Industry advocates, like the new Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, and critics, including unions and safety groups, agree the Department of Transportation needs to set some rules. This regulation must perform a delicate balancing act to ensure vehicle safety without stifling this fledgling industry before it takes off.
Keep in mind that accidents involving driverless trucks are going to happen at some point – perhaps due to a motorist cutting in front of the truck, a flat tire or a computer problem. But they will most likely be involved in a fraction of large truck crashes that result in injury or death; 159,000 people were injured in crashes in 2019 and 5,600 people were killed in 2021, according to NHTSA data. Otherwise, the robot-truck industry will not survive.
The rules must also take into account that the trucking industry is dominated by small businesses and owner-operators. There are nearly 2 million motor freight carriers in the United States, and more than half of them own only one truck, which they probably drive themselves. Only 5,600 of these motor carriers operate more than 100 trucks. It is important that autonomous vehicle technology is also available to these small entrepreneurs. For now, most driverless system developers have partnered with big companies, including UPS, FedEx Corp. and JB Hunt Transport Systems Inc.
It will take time, possibly years, before self-driving trucks solve the shortage of long-haul drivers. To pave the way, transparency on the performance of the technologies of these companies will generate public confidence that, instead of being a threat, these trucks will in fact be much safer and can handle the work of transporting goods. Across the country.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• AI needs a babysitter, just like the rest of us: Parmy Olson
• Agricultural robots will solve many of our food worries: Amanda Little
• Walmart truckers even shoot junior bankers: Jared Dillian
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Thomas Black is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering logistics and manufacturing. Previously, it covered US industrial and transportation companies as well as Mexican industry, economy and government.
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