Who's Behind the Wheel?


In "Back to the Future II," Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel through time from 1989 to 2015, where they encounter a world with hover-boards and flying cars (and, equally implausibly, the Chicago Cubs as World Series champions). While the prophecy about flying cars has not come true, "driverless" vehicle technology is becoming a reality, and the commercial trucking industry can expect related advances to become integrated into daily practice.

In May, Daimler Trucks North America started testing its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, an autonomous 18-wheel tractor trailer, on public roads in Nevada. This tractor is equipped with Daimler's Highway Pilot system, which allows the vehicle to automatically maintain a legal speed, operate within its lane of travel at a safe following distance, and brake to a stop when necessary thanks to radar sensors, a stereo camera and additional assistance systems. However, the Freightliner Inspiration is not a truly "driverless" tractor, as the technology utilized (not to mention governmental regulations) still requires that a qualified and licensed driver be behind the wheel. As testing on public roads has just begun, the industry is likely at least ten years away from the Inspiration being a practical reality.

Among the most pertinent recent developments in the realm of automated trucking is "platooning." Platooning occurs when two or more trucks travel in tandem while connected wirelessly and strategically controlled to maintain an optimum following distance. This cloud-based communication between vehicles enables simultaneous accelerating and braking, which allows the vehicles to travel more closely behind one another than otherwise would be possible given the perception-reaction time of human drivers. This close following creates an aerodynamic "drafting" effect, reducing drag on the vehicles and increasing fuel economy.

Peloton Technology (named after the group of riders packed together during a bicycle race) recently received investment from eight Fortune Global 500 companies to facilitate its research and development of platooning technology. Peloton integrates V2V communication technology, radar-based collision prevention and vehicle-control algorithms to meet the twin goals of accident avoidance and fuel maximization. Having demonstrated its platooning system since 2013, Peloton claims fuel consumption reductions of 4.5 percent and up to 10 percent for the front and tailing trucks in a platoon, respectively.

Each tractor in a platoon still requires a driver in the cab to maintain control over steering, accelerating and braking. However, Peloton's Network Operations Center monitors and controls the vehicles remotely and facilitates cloud-based communication among the vehicles. Tractors are only linked for platooning on suitable roads and under appropriate weather and traffic conditions, and the Operations Center coordinates available trucks for linking up. Inter-carrier platooning is possible, provided carriers standardize and incorporate the requisite platooning technology in their fleets and integrate associated logistics. The difficulty here, beyond having competing carriers agree on operative logistics and the division of costs, is that carriers may not be willing to incur the costs of technology integration when the return on their investment may be multiple years down the road.

One of the ongoing issues facing the commercial trucking industry in 2015 is driver shortage and, predictably, the development and use of "driverless" truck technology has been a proposed solution. However, as noted above, even "driverless" tractors require a driver to be present in the cab, begging the question as to whether any commercial vehicles will be truly driverless in the near future. What's more, the incorporation of technology into the operator experience may entice a new generation of drivers who have grown up in a world where there's an "app" for nearly every part of daily life.

The most profound effect of driverless technology may very well be on trucking safety. Driver fatigue is a prime cause of trucking accidents, and driverless or semi-autonomous trucks may decrease the stress associated with a full day of driving. As with platooning, semi-autonomous tractors can lessen the driver's responsibility for constant control of the vehicle's speed, following distance and lane maneuvering, allowing the driver to relax, at least partially, throughout a trip and sustain focus and stamina. Though it remains to be seen whether this would have any effect on driving hours restrictions, as regulations are notoriously slow to change, especially if the general public voices concerns that the 80,000 pound 18-wheeler in the next lane is being controlled by an IT specialist in a cubicle half a continent away.

These advances, while exciting, also carry potential problems. Most notably, drivers of semi-autonomous tractors still must react quickly in taking over control of the vehicle when situations dictate, and not be lulled to distraction or a false sense of security in over-reliance on the technology. Advancements in driverless technology could also scare away potential new drivers from the profession if they believe that automation will render their jobs superfluous in the near future. For carriers, the increased costs of new jobs needed to monitor the autonomous operations, along with increases in compensation for drivers who must take on new technology-related responsibilities and training, may be prohibitive, even after factoring in the associated benefits of accident prevention, increased fuel economy and even lower insurance premiums. As with any business, many carriers will be reticent to incur the costs of integrating these new technologies unless and until there is clear evidence that doing so will have a positive effect on the company's bottom line.

Comment: While truly "driverless" trucks are still years, if not decades, away from being a significant segment of commercial trucking fleets, carriers should be aware of and prepared for the technological advances coming to the industry in the interim so as to maximize profitability and sustain a viable labor force. What is certain is that these new technologies will bring changes to the role of the truck driver. Truck driving will become a collaborative partnership between operator and automation and carriers should be taking proactive steps to prepare their fleet, logistics and drivers for this new future.

For more information, please contact Patrick J. Downey at pdowney@wglaw.com or 267.765.4126 or James A. Wescoe at jwescoe@wglaw.com or 267.765.4123. 

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