Driverless trucks: Irre$i$tible?

By Kevin Jones on
OptimusPrime robot truck

Transformer Optimus Prime, a robo-transporter model for the future?

The technology is getting close, but is the public really ready to share the road with self-driving vehicles? While some states have already adopted legislation regarding test vehicles on the streets, the economics doesn’t make much sense on a consumer level just yet. And that’s why many analysts expect the first generation of driverless road transport to be commercial trucks instead of family sedans.

Here’s the bottom line, or the punch line, depending on whether you’re a fleet manager looking to cut costs, or a truck driver doing a job you like: “The use of autonomous long-haul trucks (ALHTs) could add up to a multibillion-dollar opportunity for companies throughout the trucking value chain.”

That’s from “The Next Autonomous Car Is a Truck,” posted recently on the website of a management magazine called strategy + business. It’s just the latest contribution to the growing discussion of robo-rigs and auto-autos.

Overdrive’s Max Heine has offered his thoughts on self-driving vehicles, as well as a thoroughly linked round-up of developments, here and here.

The s+b focus, of course, isn’t so much about the what or when, it’s about making a business decision — how much?

Author Peter Conway of Booz & Company estimates the cost of outfitting a truck as an 18-wheel robot could be as much as $200,000, tractor and trailer not included. That’s strictly a ballpark guess at this point, but just the radar system typically used in current-gen autonomous vehicles goes for $70,000 — though prices would certainly fall with wider adoption.

On the other side of the ledger, he suggests the savings could exceed $100,000 per truck annually.

Of course, “a significant portion of both the cost savings and the efficiency gains would come from eliminating drivers’ wages from the bottom line.”

As with the industrial robots and automated processes used so widely in manufacturing, not only do they replace humans and their wages, they keep going, and going and going.

The immediate upside for commercial fleets is the surge in truck productivity, without those pesky Hours of Service rules to worry about. But, as Conway notes, truck capacity would soar initially, since there’d still be all of those perfectly good human-operated trucks competing for loads.

Early adopters would profit nonetheless, he concludes.

“We won’t see highways dotted with driverless trucks in the near term. But the economics suggest that over the long term, the industry will migrate to autonomous vehicles,” Conway writes. “Trucking companies that deploy these technologies most effectively will secure industry-leading positions.”

Additionally, the OEMs and suppliers that provide the new equipment will quickly claim more market share.

“Given that heavy truck model changes occur infrequently, sometimes not for a decade or longer, ALHTs could be just one design cycle away,” he says.

I’m putting the over/under at 2028, that’s 15 years from now.

And I’m not worried about forgetting my prediction: I’ll just ask a truck to google this post for me, while it’s stuck sitting at the dock waiting to be loaded by surly robo-lumpers.

 

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones is Senior Editor, Trucking Media, and writes from his home in Little Rock, Ark. His Fleet Street blog features whatever strikes his fancy and has at least a little connection to trucks, or drivers, or highways. Or David Allan Coe. (Google "the perfect country and western song" if you're not nearly as old as Kevin is.) You can also keep up with Kevin by following his Twitter feed (@KevinJonesCCJ) or just drop him a line: kevin.jones@randallreilly.com.

28 comments
gearjmmr
gearjmmr

I'm sure we'll all (drivers) start trembling just as soon as all hackers are eliminated from the equation. Imagine the potential for a terrorist attack! Can you say CHAOS on a very large scale?

George Long
George Long

Visualize the design of robotic trucks. With the sleeper and cab made redundant, the robot tractor will need only the engine, transmission, suspension, fuel tanks and controls, which will all become hydraulic and not mechanical. The new tractors will have the engines/transmissions located BEHIND the fifth wheel and will operate as 'pusher's instead of pullers, the entire tractor fitting UNDER the front of the trailer being towed...or pushed as the case will be. The trailer will be streamlined since it will now be in the 'lead' with the tractor tucked under the trailer. Trailers will be slightly longer with an extra 4,000 lbs of payload / capacity due to the reduced weight of the tractor. The steers will be slightly smaller than the drives and will be mounted BEHIND the power train. When turning, there will be no need for the unit to 'jack knife', allowing for much tighter turning radius even though the trailer may be standard at 53' length. The power unit will not need to 'swing out' from the line of the trailer allowing for turns that remain in the occupied lane; since the steer wheels will be about 15' behind the front of the trailer, the robot truck will fit safely into many smaller streets. Refueling? The fuel tanks of the future will probably become part of the trailer rather then the tractor and will 'quick connect' to the power unit much as the air/light connections currently do. Switch the 4,000 lbs saved from the omitted

cab/sleeper to fuel capacity, and instead of 300 gallons total, you can have over 1,000 gallons in each trailer...a 6,000 mile range...coast to coast round trip without stopping for fuel. Drivers...beware.

Guest
Guest

I hope I live to see the day where all the unprofessional, lazy ass, malcontent, coffee drinking swines with 1 toothand bad breath poor excuse for drivers are all replaced with robots. Can you imagine not having to argue with 'ol ignaramous anymore?  Nobody wants to work but are the 1st to bitch as soon as companies want to replace them. Just goes to prove that ... You just can't fix stupid...

 

And for those who say that humans will still be needed for fuel? Nope... Electric trucks, Solar powered trucks, Fuel cell powered trucks. From point A to point B with no stopping in between. Way, way cool.

 

Airplanes already have Auto-Pilot so the technology is already here.

 

All I say is... Bring it. The sooner the better.

Gordon A
Gordon A

Robot trucks. OK. Drivers will still be needed. Driverless truck gets off interstate and maneuvers to receiver.  turns into customer yard to staging area . Humans need to be there to open doors so robot can back into dock. Who makes the decision to find the customer? Does the programming do all of it? Will the trailer be completely rebuilt to accommodate the remote door opener.? Automatic wheel chocks? Will there be a staging area  at each state line to  eliminate robot trucks in city traffic.? I wonder how the robot will handle the idiots  that we have to put up with in traffic?. Lots of starting and stopping. It will wear out the computer and  the robot will recalculate until it crashes. How will it handle mechanical problems like flat tires, air leaks , overheating ? The future is near.

cspoon
cspoon

Sorry to write on this subject once again. I just got in the middle of a different subject but it to was dealing with the future. We always complain that if I only knew about this I could have purchased some stocks. Well for the few that are reading this: here is the future coming at us. Yes, the trucks may be on test tracks now. Soon to be on limited road tests maybe with a test driver just in case the system has a failure. Some day the company is going to get approval from the Federal DOT to allow a driverless truck to enter the main stream of traffic. Don't hide or ignore this information from CCJ. Start looking for the company that is pioneering this technology. Buy some stock while it is low so you can say this time I got in on the ground floor. This is not out of line. Currently Federal Highway Administration is working in conjunction with FORD, GM and Diamond Chrysler on what is called "connected vehicles" and that is receiving and transmitting data from vehicle to vehicle. The idea is to pass on weather data on road conditions to improve safety. If this technology blooms as it has, then transmitting information that my vehicle is traveling 45 mph and you are over taking me at 75 mph is not to out of reach. This could keep vehicles from crashing into each other. It could cause the truck to slow down long before it reaches a situation were split second judgement is needed.

cspoon
cspoon

This sounds possible and may happen. The truck still needs fuel. That means the truck stop will have to automate some sort of transmission to inform the incoming truck to hold or pull into line. Then the human fuels???? or does the robot fueler do the dirty work. Paying is online no issue. Snow and Ice and other weather concerns. Road closure by states and were to park. again some kind of transmission to the robot of available space. What happens when there is no longer available space. Does the truck just shut down on the side of the road. They do that now and the Trooper have to force them to move or find another location. Robot shut down and the trooper talking to a brick wall. Lots of variables for the programmers to address. The next 15 years could be interesting. Oh ya, construction - how is the programmer going to keep up with daily progress of construction???? Only time will tell.

JohnDeSapio
JohnDeSapio

I'd like to see a robot fight off a couple of hijackers.

trucker truth
trucker truth

This may happen someday. This is just another way for big trucking companies to put fear in truck drivers heads. Trucking companies do not want to pay a living wage for driving a truck. Let's put word on the street truck drivers will be replaced in 15 years. There are so many thing you have to do to make this happen. From what I see federal, state and local goverment have no money to spend on a trucking companies dream of paying no one to drive there trucks. 

gearjmmr
gearjmmr

It just may be that the whole thing will be short-lived because of technology coming on the heels of this that will virtually obliterate the need for surface transportation. It will be sort of like the pager/cell phone/smart phone metamorphosis we experienced in the last two decades. In the days of Buck Rogers serials, people generally took the whole thing to be fantasy. Mankind has since progressed to the building of space stations and the exploration of other planets. Now, if we could just learn to live together. Be well!

Richard Cole
Richard Cole

You know the drones in the Middle east have killed a lot of innocent people. The 1st time one of the robotic trucks kills somebody, the lawyers will be lined up to sue the company.

Evan Johnson
Evan Johnson

this would put the job market in the tank and maybe cause nation wide panic to have driverless trucks  on the road .

I should know im an over the road driver and the morons driving cars now is outrageous i could just see what would happen to the fatality rate on the high ways if this would ever come true. 

Andre
Andre

As a fleet owner, 9 times out of 10 I'd want a human being behind the wheel. I don't believe that automated manufacturing, where in most cases a robot does one thing (and only that one thing) thousands of times each day, or that a plane flying on auto-pilot where there is still a fully trained and available pilot on board, can be compared to having a fully automated driverless truck carrying a 44000lb load down a busy highway where split second decisions must be made. There are just too many unknowns that come up while driving, including traffic, weather, accidents, and equipment issues, which a professional driver can handle, but a robot could potentially get stuck with a load worth a quarter of a million on an isolated road in the middle of nowhere and the company would have to send either a back-up driver or a highly trained technician to rescue their stranded Transformer.  

Rocco
Rocco

Just what we need more unemployment......sometimes technology does not enhance our lives!

Old Lady Driver
Old Lady Driver

Technology is still based on human discernment, are we so driven to have our goods we have to use monetary value to choose what is safe?  Yes, our youngsters are better at computers than their elders, is that a future?  Personally I still would rather see this country from a windshield than buy the latest, newest, more expensive gadget just because it is cheaper than the previous newest gadget!

j stewart
j stewart

I wager that to be happening about the same time trained monkeys start flying passenger jets..

john3347
john3347

Snow and Ice would be weather conditions that would require a robot to find suitable parking and shut his truck down, but there would be no need to program rest breaks or sleep stops for the robot.  The robot can drive 24 hours nationwide, only stopping for fuel.

john3347
john3347

Do the hijackers know the robot password?  Do they even know the telephone number to call to get a human to reset the robot's computer remotely?  There are ways to prevent robot  kidnap or overpowering.

George Long
George Long

All operational businesses seek to substitute capital for labor...it is the direct offshoot of the Industrial Revolution, post Industrial Revolution, Computer Revolution...it is a process that will not stop. This article is a warning that by 2028, the demand from drivers will be greatly reduced...so prepare for it. Become a maintenance mechanic for the more complicated robot truck and get higher pay, cleaner work, more respect, and be home each night.  Or become the person who remotely operates the trucks...probably there will be a central command location with a single operator overseeing a dozen trucks...in eight hour shifts...in a clean work environment much like the Air Force has for it's drone operations.  By the way...how will law enforcement do a roadside inspection on one of these trucks? Who will they cite when the robo-truck is speeding? It will put enforcement officers out of work, because they will no longer be able to pick the pockets of owner-operators.

Hammer Lane
Hammer Lane

It is called an education, get an education and go out and work on these computer systems that will run these trucks. It is a matter of time before this happens now is the time to change, find something else to pursue.

john3347
john3347

We already have trained monkeys flying our passenger jets.  One of them landed at San Francisco a week or so ago.  4 pilots on board and assigned to flying the plane and nobody knew that the plane was coming in too slow and too close to the ground.  That is monkey flight.

Jordon
Jordon

That's absurd, but more to the point, computers are already flying passenger jets and in some cases from takeoff to landing.

greasy terd
greasy terd

like duck sausage , has anyone thought about trying some duck sausage? duck down and get ya some 

Evan Johnson
Evan Johnson

Ok that would be a good idea but if we dont have jobs to PAY for that education .

who will 

KimMason1
KimMason1

 @john3347

 Boy, John, You nailed it with that comment ! I couldn't have said it any better.

just a trucker
just a trucker

 @john3347 sorry john, I was not really responding to your comment. I was responding to the topic, just put it in the wrong place.

john3347
john3347

Who said anything about robots?  I was responding to a suggestion that monkeys could be flying passenger planes one day.  I was referring to a plane crash about a week ago in which 4 pilots having over 35,000 flight hours total were assigned to flight duty and not one of them were able to figure out that the plane was coming in too slow and too low to the ground to land safely.  I called this equal to monkeys flying passenger Jets.  Now what does that have to do with robots?

just a trucker
just a trucker

 @KimMason1  @john3347 I can not realistically see that happening. If we really want to put a robot somewhere, why not on the battlefield where life would actually be preserved. Not on the roads where lives will surely be taken because computers fail everyday and what will happen to the 80 thousand plus missile when one fails over our highways. To much potential for danger with this idea and when and if it happens not only drivers would be out of jobs but so would many others killed by this stupid idea.



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