Autonomous Vehicles – The Big Picture
The Need for Common Regulatory Environment
One major thing to keep in mind with autonomous vehicles is that the goal is (or should be) to bring a greater degree of safety to our roadways, reductions in fuel costs, lowering traffic congestion and improving the environment. One large part of the puzzle in keeping the technology moving forward is that all levels of government need to come together and bring the regulations up to speed with the technology. These systems will not have their fullest ROI if some jurisdictions allow them and others do not – especially if you get jurisdictions that chop up any continuity between regions. An example would be if West Virginia allowed a technology on their roads while it was barred in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. Such a scenario will provide a benefit to the state of West Virginia but it is lower than it would be if the other states allowed the same technology. With the above being stated, it appears there is some progress being made on this front to consolidate regulations at the Federal level: The US is speeding toward its first national law for self-driving cars.
Further, there should be a consistent set of regulations not only between states but also between the United States, Canada and Mexico to ensure the safe and efficient flow of trade between the two countries.
Drivers – A New Opportunity
The reality is that a human driver is not going away any time soon. Even if it is only for liability reasons, the need for a “bum in the seat” will remain so that there is a human that can take control in certain environmental situations where the technology still has problems “visualizing”. For example modern lidar and radar systems will allow for the potential of allowing commercial vehicles to have a greatly reduced gap between vehicles. This can provide significant fuel savings, similar to what race car drivers do as they wait for an opportunity to make their move. However, under very sunny conditions some of these systems have difficulty in distinguishing large white vehicles. So that trailer in that it is trying to follow closely sometimes can be difficult for it to “see”! The radar system can help reduce that “blind spot”, but what about a snow storm or a heavy rainfall, two conditions that can also be difficult for either system to work efficiently? These are cases where the vehicle will need to indicate to the driver that they need to take back control of the vehicle to maintain an acceptable level of safety.
Another situation where a human needs to take control is in stop and start traffic. In these cases, it is the sudden decelerations that are difficult for the automation to handle. So one can think of it this way, on a Detroit to Miami run, the truck could control itself for much of the trip down I-75, but the driver would need to take control through the construction zone between Dayton and Cincinnati as well as through the traffic congestion around Atlanta. Finally the driver will still have to be in control in the final delivery section.
Where there is an opportunity for the drivers is to become more like the captain of a ship, ready to take control when needed but able to work on other tasks when the vehicle is managing itself. Depending on conditions the driver could be scanning and sending their paperwork, sending documents to a customs broker or looking for their next load if they are an owner-operator. He could be able to have the time to prepare his own meals with fresh ingredients instead of eating at a truck stop. She could be using in cab gym equipment to do a workout to keep in shape, reducing fatigue and maintaining better health. Finally the driver could be taking training sessions while on the road making it more efficient and timely to keep your driving force up to date with the ever changing regulations or taking courses towards college credits. By giving the profession a more varied work experience we may be able to attract from a wider pool of new recruits.
At the same time we may be able to get modifications to things such as lane departure systems (that take over control of the acceleration, steering and braking systems) to allow for something like back-up assistance. This would take some of the risk out of introductory drivers who have a difficult time with backing up trailers. It could even help out experienced drivers when they have to blindside into a tight dock. The system could be either active (with the driver allowing the vehicle complete control to back up the trailer) or passive with the system watching what the driver is doing and ready to intervene if they start veering into trouble.
Actively Changing the Public’s Perceptions of Trucking
The last area that is a very real threat is the public perception of autonomous vehicles. At the present time there probably are not a lot of drivers who would be comfortable sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle. There are just too many passenger vehicle drivers who really aren’t that comfortable with commercial vehicles being on the road with them at all. So yes, there is a threat that some lawmakers could try to use these technologies as a wedge issue in an election. However there is an even greater opportunity for the industry to use these new technologies as tangible proof of our commitment to the safety of all drivers on the road. For example, there are new collision avoidance systems that can assist a driver in avoiding a rear end collision. The driver might initiate the turn to avoid the hard braking or stationary vehicle in front of them but then the system takes over, looking at what is to both sides of the truck, the speeds that the other vehicles are traveling and what the distance is to the vehicle in front of them. There really is no reason that the truck itself could not see the hazard and start determining the evasive action before the human driver can even process what they are seeing. By playing up the benefits of these systems to the general public we have a huge opportunity to raise the popular opinion of the industry in general with the add-on benefit of then increasing the attractiveness of trucking as a career. Increased safety, the potential of attracting people who would not otherwise look at driving as a career, and lowering the risk profile of our fleets, and not forgetting the opportunities for increasing profitability.