Drivers’ jobs post-autonomy, ‘disruption in chunks’: Panel talks self-driving trucks

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Updated Jan 15, 2020
Autonomous Trucks Discussion at FTR ConferenceFrom left: Morgan Brewster of Ike Robotics; Jay Lau of TuSimple; and Paul Schlegel of Starsky Robotics. Mike Camissa (far right) of Camissa Consulting moderated the panel.

Speaking earlier this month at the FTR Transportation Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, representatives from three autonomous truck tech developers predicted that the deployment of autonomous trucks in the U.S. will take place slowly over the coming decade, with a focus on certain lanes and geographies that lend themselves to self-driving technology.

“It’s not a question of when will autonomous vehicles will be here,” said Paul Schlegel, senior vice president of Starsky Robotics. “They’re here. We’re doing it now. The question is ‘when will autonomous vehicles disrupt the industry’? That disruption is going to come in small chunks. It may disrupt in one lane from Dallas to Houston soon. But it may be years before the entire industry has a feel of ‘Wow, this has been a huge disrupter in the industry.'”

Schlegel spoke alongside Morgan Brewster, head of strategy for Ike Robotics, and Jay Lau, director of transportation for TuSimple. The panel was moderated by Mike Camissa of Camissa Consulting.

Starksy operates as a 50-truck motor carrier and employs 45 drivers. Schlegel, who spent decades working for major fleets like Schneider, Stevens Transport and RoadRunner, says the company “runs OTR freight every day.”

Earlier this year, the company ran a completely unmanned 9-mile test run in Florida with a remote driver monitoring the driverless run.

Though all three panelists forecasted that the deployment of autonomous trucks in real-world trucking applications is inevitable, they said it won’t be an overnight transition.

“That fear of that phantom — that [autonomous trucks] will be arriving on a highway near you” isn’t a reality, says Lau. As automated vehicles “receive acceptance over the next decade, you’ll begin to see [them] with more regularity.” Lau also pointed to fleet equipment turnover cycles as a factor that will help keep deployment of autonomous vehicles restrained.

“You can’t rush this technology,” says Brewster. “That’s why it’s going to take a while.”

The panelists also sought to assuage fears by drivers that the technology will put them out of a job.

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“We see this partnership between automated trucks and human-driven trucks, [and] in our model, we’re actually making truck drivers jobs more valuable and more rewarding,” says Brewster. He foresees the driving job as “[shifting] from the really hard over the road long-haul segment and [moving] those jobs to home-daily jobs.”

“We don’t want to get rid of drivers. They’re the lifeblood of our company,” says Schlegel.

He envisions drivers’ jobs as a hybrid role, spending short stints behind the wheel but with much of their work performed at a remote monitoring location. “Eventually, our vision is that the job of the truck driver is they go into an office that would be much like an air traffic control center,” he says, forecasting a model in which drivers would physically drive the truck from an pickup location to the highway, then let the truck drive itself during the on-highway segment while the driver monitors the vehicle from the control center.

Lau says learning to work with automated trucks is “a natural progression of the [driving] job.” To that end, his company recently partnered with Pima Community College in Arizona to offer an autonomous driving certification program. “These will be highly automated, highly technical vehicles. They will need the expertise” of a driver trained to operate and monitor them, he says.