Autonomous Trucks Will Be in Service Faster Than Many Predict

Engine Technology, Fleet Management, Safety & Environment
December 27, 2016

Ryder ChoiceLeaseThere is much debate over how close we are to seeing fully autonomous fleets of commercial vehicles traveling along America’s highways. With a host of technological and regulatory hurdles still to overcome, many prognosticators believe it will be a distant future before viable self-driving trucks are brought to market.

Ironically, some perceived hindrances – such as the regulatory environment – have actually become catalysts, helping drive significant advancements in this area. These advancements are spurring a flurry of new technologies that improve connectivity and autonomy, getting us closer than many people think. Together, these building blocks are bringing the future closer and closer to the present.

Not many people would associate the proposed federal Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions rules for heavy trucks as having an impact on the development of autonomous vehicle technology. Yet these rules, which go into effect in 2021, are doing just that by shaping future commercial vehicle designs. For example, to meet the increased carbon reduction goals for heavy-duty commercial vehicles – a 25-percent improvement is required – manufacturers will need to find new ways to improve fuel economy.

One of the most prevalent technologies being deployed in heavy-duty commercial vehicles to address this is the automated manual transmission. This technology uses automation to shift the manual transmission at the optimal time, resulting in better fuel economy, not to mention improved ease of use for the driver. This technology is a major building block for autonomous driving and is already available on thousands of commercial trucks operating today. From a driver-recruiting standpoint, these newer technologies will also assist with attracting younger drivers into the industry. With the majority of the U.S. population currently operating automatic transmission passenger vehicles, driving commercial vehicles with the same types of transmission systems will make it less complex for new recruits to become professional drivers.

Increased road safety regulations have played a large role in driving advancements in onboard vehicle technologies, many of which assist drivers or even automatically intervene to prevent a collision before it happens. Adaptive cruise control, forward-looking radar, collision-avoidance and lane-departure warning systems are examples of technologies’ increasing automation, which is currently available and in use in many commercial fleets. Having these types of technologies also yields savings in the cost of fleet protection.

These technologies actually change the commercial driver profile of who we recruit and what level of sophistication they have around technology and the industry in general. The increased focus on technology, environment and innovation all act as attracters for the new generation of drivers. When you combine connectivity, telematics, safety features and automated manual transmission, all are leading to semi-automated and eventually fully automated trucks that a younger generation of drivers would be more inclined to operate as a career. With enabling safety systems, forward-looking radar, and lane-departure systems, the productivity and performance of the fleet improves as well.

Semi-autonomous vehicle technologies may also be one solution to the driver shortage, which is estimated at 70,000 this year, and may rise to 175,000 by 2024. Many drivers have recently retired from the industry, but these advanced technologies may actually extend the careers of aging drivers and attract even more candidates to the industry, including women. Drivers also involuntarily drop out of the market because they are no longer qualified because of Motor Vehicle Report infractions. But these newer technologies will help reduce the frequency of collisions, inadvertent speeding and dangerous driving, thereby lowering the number of drivers who become disqualified. Driver attrition rates will decline.

Additionally, as insurance actuaries take note of the benefits of these technologies, businesses that utilize these advances will likely receive discounts in the same way auto insurers provide policy discounts for passenger vehicles that have features to promote safety, such as air bags, anti-lock brakes, alarms and driver-monitoring systems.

In the commercial segment, cameras that capture activity both inside and outside vehicles, forward- collision mitigation systems, automatic braking systems, lane-departure warning tools and blind-spot awareness sensors could all work together to promote safety on the road. Using these safety tools to mitigate risk has become an important part of fleet management.

Another regulation contributing to autonomous vehicle technology is the Electronic Logging Device, or ELD, mandate that goes into effect next December. An ELD synchronizes with a vehicle engine control module to automatically record driving time for easier, more accurate hours of service recording. The device also transmits and shares data from the vehicle to fleet managers and to third parties, like truck manufacturers and law enforcement. This connectivity is another key building block helping to make autonomous vehicles and the intelligent transportation systems required to enable their operation a reality.

In the same vein, food-safety regulations that require traceability throughout the food supply chain are resulting in additional connected fleet innovations. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed in 2011 and just had its first major compliance date this September, acts as a game-changer in this area. It mandates that carriers and shippers provide proof that food has maintained the appropriate temperature control during transport. This has resulted in the development and use of GPS-based telematics technologies that monitor and send alerts about trailer temperatures and locations in real time.

The collective potential of these individual technologies, when combined, indicates that the industry is much closer to deploying a fully self-driving truck or commercial vehicle than some futurists believe. And the effects of this advancement are expected to go way beyond safety and efficiency, ultimately changing the profile of the truck driver and creating exciting prospects for the future of the profession.

Ryder has been very involved in working with the various technology platform providers that are developing the components that will serve as the building blocks toward automated vehicle technologies. The company has had many discussions with the vehicle manufacturers and technology firms to provide feedback around functionality, usability and adaptability. Ryder is always striving to improve its customer fleets, and the relationships that are being built with the platform providers help support the company’s goals of accelerated deployment of some of these emerging technologies.

These efforts will help facilitate the validation of these technologies and allow them to gain widespread industry acceptance. The resulting relationships also ensure that integration is looked at through the lens of a fleet operator and not solely as a manufacturer or integrator of technology. Deploying the right technology into the right application to ensure the optimal outcomes will be critical for the safe and efficient integration of autonomous capabilities in the near term.

Written by Scott Perry, chief technology & procurement officer for Ryder

Scott Perry is the chief technology & procurement officer for Ryder System Inc., a commercial fleet management, dedicated transportation and supply chain solutions company. His responsibilities include identifying new technologies that would enhance and improve Ryder’s product and service offerings.

This article was published by trucks.com on December 8, 2016. It is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

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