Emerging technologies from both traditional trucking suppliers and tech startups aim to alter the industry’s landscape – and carriers’ operations – dramatically in the coming decades.
While the endgame to such technologies could be 30 or more years away, the building blocks of autonomy promise carriers – and the supply chain at large – greater safety and efficiency, as well as the tools needed to fit into an ever-changing global economy. Other emerging technologies intend to measure and mitigate fatigued driving to boost safety.
Factor in evolving macroeconomic trends such as an increasing reliance on e-commerce and the sharing economy, and the industry is ripe for an evolution. However, hurdles remain for these new technologies to fully make their entrance.
In this 12th and final edition of CCJ’s Tech Toolbox series for 2017, we examine how these technologies individually and collectively could alter tomorrow’s carrier operations.
Also visit CCJTechToolbox.com to see the full year’s worth of installments, which detail how carriers can use current and coming technologies to tackle issues such as equipment maintenance, driver recruiting and retention, efficient routing and more.
– Jeff Crissey and Todd Dills contributed to this month’s report.
In the past three years, few equipment-based technologies have garnered as much speculation as autonomy, particularly related to its viability within trucking, the timeline for which such technologies may come to market and the ultimate impacts it will have on the industry and its labor force.
Drivers worry they’ll be replaced by complex algorithms, highly advanced mapping systems and a bevy of cameras and sensors. However, the near-term gains for carriers won’t be in costs saved on driver wages, says Noël Perry, a freight economist and analyst for Truckstop.com.
Rather, Perry says, the safety benefits of automating drivers’ tasks will come from crash reduction. “That’s the public face of it,” he says. “Fleets don’t make investments unless there’s a payback. The payback of autonomy is avoidance of expensive accidents.”
The data already available for automation in the real world, such as automatic braking and lane departure warning systems, show “a dramatic reduction in accidents, almost immediately,” says Perry, who speculates the autonomous revolution will be in full force around 2035, at which point many trucks in operation will be highly autonomous – not driverless, but capable of performing the driving job without much input if any.
“From a trucking standpoint, setting aside driver concerns, it’s very positive for the trucking industry, because it makes trucking cheaper and faster,” he says. Until then, fleets will reap the benefits of the safety gains from increasing levels of automation and the ability to “source drivers in a whole different way than they do now.”
“It will absolutely solve the driver [shortage] problem,” says Perry, given that automation “will lower the competency requirements” of the driving job. Drivers won’t require the training or the skillsets that they traditionally have needed, given the ability of autonomous technology to not only perform driving tasks but also prevent crashes, he says.
Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions and marketing for Bendix, foresees a slower timeline for highly automated trucks, predicting Level 5 automated tractor-trailers – those that require no driver input – won’t be operating on U.S. highways until around 2050. However, he agrees that driver assistance systems, the building blocks of fully automated vehicles, will make major inroads and provide big benefits to fleets, the industry and the public.
The focus for automation will be the influx of data that fleets and suppliers such as Bendix will reap in the coming years from existing automated and telematics systems and electronic logging devices. “That’s going to enable more types of interventions and applications,” Andersky says.
Bendix’s existing Wingman Fusion crash mitigation platform relies on sensors, cameras and radar to issue lane departure warnings, activate adaptive cruise control mode and apply brakes when it detects an impending rear-end collision.
The integration of more sensors in the coming years may lead to more capabilities for the system, such as sideswipe detection and mitigation. “Continuing that, you start adding integration of the trailer so that sensors on the trailer communicate directly with the systems in the cab, and you can start seeing [integration of] auto-backing and auto-parking,” says Andersky, who envisions a “push a button and back to dock” application.
The next step would be integrating steering capabilities into the existing lane-keeping system. “That gets us to lane keeping, self-parking, advanced highway pilot, yard maneuvering and even more advanced collision mitigation systems that actually steer to avoid crashes.”
Andersky says these levels of driver assist systems likely will be introduced within the next five to seven years, providing fleets with a range of safety and operational benefits despite not reaching the degree of automation predicted by some.
“Once the foundation gets in place, things may move more rapidly, but getting true autonomy, I think, takes more time, because there’s a lot more than just the technology that’s required,” says Andersky.
“If you believe in autonomous [trucks], everything we’re doing today with advanced driver assist systems leads us on that path,” says Roger Nielsen, head of Daimler Trucks North America. “[The goal] is to make the driver safer and see accident-free driving.”
Societal acceptance is a key piece of the autonomous puzzle, particularly if any high-profile accidents occur and undercut public confidence in the systems’ capabilities. A truck operating in an autonomous mode that loses control could cause major and expensive havoc, says Bendix’s Fred Andersky.
Also, given the likely high price tag of trucks with high levels of automation, it will take time for economies of scale to take effect and create a realistic payback opportunity for carriers, says Keith Brandis, Volvo’s director of product planning.
“The customer has to be convinced of the productivity and safety gains before they buy it,” Brandis says. “[Autonomous tech] won’t be cheap. But by working with select customers on pilot programs, we will find the value proposition we need to hit. There are challenges today we admit we haven’t figured out yet. That’s OK, because we will learn, and we will build the database [of information] to solve these challenges for the future.”
Another major component, says Andersky, is enhancing cybersecurity. “If you look at companies who build their reputation on securing our personal data and how they’ve been hacked and lost data, there’s no bigger prize than hacking a tanker and taking out a bridge with it,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of time before we really get to the point where we have a level of security that can be truly guaranteed. Are we going to get to 100 percent? Probably not, but we have to get a heck of a lot closer than we are today.”
Governing bodies, whether at the federal or state level, also must act to establish a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, says Andersky. So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress have been hesitant to act, though some states have initiated programs to allow testing of automated vehicles, including tractor-trailers, on their roadways.
Questions surrounding necessary infrastructure investments also remain, with developers of autonomous technology foreseeing at least some level of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications necessary to fully deploy automated tech. Given congressional reluctance to secure the necessary infrastructure investment as it stands today, there’s little hope lawmakers in Washington can act on funding for connected highways for the foreseeable future, says Andersky.
Also lingering is the ethical conundrum of automated vehicles needing to make split-second decisions that could have fatal consequences. Jon Morrison, president of Wabco Americas, says vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications could mitigate instances in which a decision to avoid one crash for another would need to be made.
“The technology will be there, but it’s the transportation and infrastructure communications” that need to be shored up, Morrison says.
Wabco Americas’ Jon Morrison envisions corridors in the United States dedicated to autonomous operation. “I think it goes with a broader transportation and infrastructure approach,” he says. However, platooning operations – in which two or more trucks become a caravan using vehicle-to-vehicle communications, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and other systems – won’t need such corridors.
Platooning enables fleets to run three or more tractors in a single line on the highway, allowing a lead truck to be operated by a driver or in a semi-autonomous mode, with other tractor-trailers following behind closely. Platoons can boost fuel economy by reducing drag and allowing trucks that are following to operate in a semi-autonomous mode with little driver input. Manufacturers and suppliers such as Wabco are eyeing platooning as a more near-term platform that can provide fuel economy benefits and operational efficiencies for carriers and the supply chain at large.
Volvo also has invested in the technology, in partnership with Peloton and others, and already has demonstrated some on-highway platooning tests, including one this past summer on California’s Interstate 110 from the Port of Los Angeles. Three Volvo VNL 670 tractors hauled cargo containers in simulated real-world conditions, traveling at speeds of 55 mph and maintaining a 50-foot following distance. Volvo also partnered with USDOT for an on-highway platoon on I-66 in Virginia over the summer.
Freight economist Noël Perry forecasts platooning to be in viable operation by 2025, roughly the halfway point between now and his prediction for highly automated vehicle operations by 2035.
Another set of emerging technologies aims to bolster safety and reduce crashes via monitoring driver fatigue, either in real time or during a driver’s on-duty period.
The systems are coming to market rapidly, and carriers are taking an interest in them quickly, as fatigue monitoring technologies such as wearables, smartphone-based tests and camera systems could pave the way for more personalized hours-of-service regulations and sideline drivers who are too fatigued to drive, even if they have hours remaining in their daily schedules.
Though hours-of-service regulations are the federal government’s main tool in overseeing driver fatigue levels, holes remain, with drivers saying they often become fatigued due to those same rigid “one-size-fits-all” regulatory constraints, according to polling and post-crash reports.
The advent of technologies intended to measure drivers’ fatigue levels one day might fill the voids created or left untouched by hours regulations, giving drivers, carriers and regulators more tools to help prevent fatigued driving.
The most commonly envisioned technology dedicated to detecting fatigue are wearable devices, such as wristwatches or devices like Fit-bits, that can measure drivers’ sleep quality and track biometrics including heart rate and blood flow. Others would incorporate hats and caps that detect head movement, allowing carriers to see in real time whether a driver is exhibiting signs of severe fatigue and thus should not be operating.
Some systems are as simple as a smartphone-based test such as a psychomotor vigilance task test that measures drivers’ cognitive alertness levels. PVTs, originally developed by NASA to measure the fatigue of astronauts on space missions, have been used by researchers studying driver fatigue and hours rules.
Don Osterberg, a longtime executive at Schneider National (CCJ Top 250, No. 8) and now an adviser for SmartDrive, which provides a fatigue management system, envisions a scenario in which a driver must take a PVT test at the beginning of his duty cycle to gauge how many hours he or she could work that day, in addition to leaning on other measures such as sleep quality readings.
Wearables that provide “visibility into a drivers’ sleep duration and sleep quality [combined with] a PVT” offer “a pretty refined sense of what the driver is capable of doing that day,” he says. Video monitoring and facial mapping also could be valuable tools in detecting drivers’ fatigue levels, he says.
Though any rewrite of federal hours-of-service regulations to incorporate data from fatigue detection technology is likely years if not decades away, the private sector is proceeding with such technology, with carriers and insurers both hoping to mitigate expensive crashes.
Once all carriers are running ELDs, they’ll be able to gain insights into drivers’ anchor sleep periods and the drifting sleep patterns associated with the hours-of-service regulations, says Osterberg.
“In an industry where 4,000 truck-involved fatalities occur every year, do we have a moral obligation as transportation professionals to leverage indicators of fatigue as a way of mitigating future crash risk?” he says. “I don’t believe for a second that regulators are going to go there anytime soon. But carriers sequentially will have to demonstrate the efficacy of interventions” to DOT.
Though the e-commerce revolution has been ongoing for nearly 20 years, its effects will continue to transform the economy and freight movement in the United States and globally. Brick-and-mortar stores, one of the key endpoints of truckbound freight over the last half century, will continue to fold in favor of home-delivered goods purchased online.
Thomas Albrecht, president of Sword and Sea Transport advisers, said in an address at the FTR Conference in September that 6,000 stores have been shuttered in 2017. Another 20 percent of brick-and-mortar stores will close in the next five or so years, he says.
These economic disruptions and changing freight patterns will spur the trucking industry to lean more heavily on less-than-truckload hauls, medium-duty straight trucks and vans, shorter routes and final-mile delivery, Albrecht says.
With an industry likely to be less reliant on line-haul operations, suppliers already are prepping for such a future, with both Great Dane and Wabash purchasing straight truck divisions in recent years.
“They’re anticipating seismic changes,” says Albrecht. “It’s pretty clear the equipment of the future is going to involve a lot more medium-duty equipment and vehicles like Sprinter vans.”
Urbanization of the U.S. population will prompt the need for delivery centers located outside of cities, where long-haul carriers will drop freight that then will be loaded on smaller vehicles for distribution within cities and ultimately to homes.
Reefer will remain a strong segment, particularly as consumers continue to opt for fresh and home-delivered meat and produce over prepackaged foods. Reefer fleets serving restaurant chains also will face stiff challenges, as that segment of the economy gives way to more localized food buying, fresh ingredients and meal kit deliveries.
Perry also sees a “substantial reduction in international movement of finished goods” over the next two decades as low-cost labor in places such as China and Mexico is replaced by automated manufacturing at home.
The number of inventory holding points for both online and brick-and-mortar retailers will “drop dramatically,” Perry says. He blames the drop on the trend of expedited delivery for consumer products and the likelihood of autonomous vehicles coming to market.
“This is another way in which the people behind the smart supply chain are taking transportation out of the economy – by substituting high-service trucking but taking ton-miles out,” he says.
The auto industry also could take a major hit due to urbanization, longer-lasting vehicles and the trend toward the sharing economy, driven by companies such as Uber. Such changes would dent flatbed freight severely, says Albrecht.