From self-diagnosing and autonomous vehicles to smart phones that analyze driver health and wellness, technology is poised to vastly change the trucking landscape. An exclusive multimedia report from the editors of Commercial Carrier Journal, Overdrive, Successful Dealer and Truck Parts & Service, Trucking’s Future Now will explore what the next decades hold for trucking and what innovations will drive rapid change. In this section, editors hone in on how technological advances will change the future for owner-operators and drivers.
Fear. That’s the feeling many in today’s trucking workforce have when they think about tomorrow’s technology and what it means for their jobs. And the future does hold major changes, from eliminating many of the main duties that occupy today’s drivers and technicians to health advances that could mean a more vibrant, fit labor pool.
But despite truck drivers’ concerns, even fully autonomous trucks don’t take humans out of the picture, renowned physicist and futurist Michio Kaku said during the Commercial Vehicle Outlook in Dallas in August.
When the truck stops, there’s still the need to take inventory, sign forms and keep track of things, he said. “Robots are bad at non-repetitive tasks,” meaning jobs critical to our economy and society as a whole – truckers, dock workers, firefighters, policemen, and construction workers – will still play critical roles.
Even the beleaguered owner-operator business model, long rumored to be on
its deathbed, will reinvent itself yet again, experts predict. The leased model will give way to more true independents, who will use financial and logistics technologies to service a range of carriers, brokers and shippers and to specialize in certain types of freight or specific lanes.
“The thing to keep in mind is that humans create the economy,” says futurist Thomas Frey. While jobs will change and new skills will be learned, ultimately, “we want to keep people employed because they are the economic engines that drive everything.”
– LINDA LONGTON
AS INCREASINGLY automated vehicles no longer require full-time operators, the long-haul driver job will shift to that of an in-cab systems manager, a role that trucking futurists refer to as the “captain of the ship,” a job similar to that of an airline pilot. Automation will replace on-highway tasks such as changing speeds, braking and steering, and potentially take over more complex tasks such as changing lanes and exiting highways.
Instead, drivers will perform higher-level technical work such as monitoring diagnostics systems, optimizing routing, communicating with other truck operators to form on-highway platoons and handling some of the dispatch and load-finding responsibilities. They’ll also keep eyes on the host of complex autonomous, telematics and other smart systems that will grace trucks’ dashes. And they will be on guard to take control of the vehicle if needed.
Drivers will still do some of the same nondriving work as today, such as load securement, walkarounds and other pre- and post-trip duties.
But some levels of automation could replace even those tasks. Paul Menig, chief executive officer of Tech-I-M, a strategic management and business consulting firm, envisions a day when truckers can pull into a truck stop and be done with their day’s work.
“I could get out of the truck at the fuel island, say ‘goodbye truck’ – I am now relieved of duty,” Menig says. “The truck would finish fueling, finish getting its diesel exhaust fluid, do its diagnostic check, and then it would go park itself. And I can go get in line for a shower.”
– JAMES JAILLET
THE COMING ADOPTION of autonomous trucks and platooning raises the question of whether hours-of-service regulations will be changed to treat a driver’s on-duty time differently if he’s getting a form of rest.
Giving drivers relief from stressful tasks such as navigating dense traffic and the fatigue that comes with always staying vigilant behind the wheel could open the door for loosening some regulatory burdens that truck operators and fleets face now, such as increasing maximum on-duty time or at least easing HOS regulations.
“[Automation] shifts the whole job as we know it today,” says John Elliott, CEO of Load One, a Taylor, Mich.-based fleet. “[We could] see workload rules that apply to what that world is and not the world today.”
Similarly, per-mile-based pay likely will migrate toward time-based pay models or even salaries for company drivers and percentage-of-load for independent owner-operators. Gordon Klemp, National Transportation Institute principal, has seen more hourly pay packages for company drivers from carriers of all kinds as freight regionalization in both van and reefer segments continues to intensify and haul lengths decline – dynamics expected to continue in the future.
For leased owner-operators, percentage pay has become more prominent in recent good economic times, says Todd Amen, president of ATBS, the nation’s largest owner-operator business services firm. As rates heat up, the percentage pay model is often the best way for an independent to maximize earning potential in a leased operation.
Percentage also is the pay method most closely associated to true independents operating with their own authority. As the concern for greater independence grows for such independent contractors, percentage pay is likely to remain the dominant model, Amen says.
– JAMES JAILLET AND TODD DILLS
SAY HELLO to a future without the hassle of 90 percent — plus driver turnover. Predictive modeling, which uses forecasting data to create a statistical model of future behavior, is about to change the retention game.
“The big gains [from predictive analytics] are in understanding drivers and their work preferences and matching them to the right company,” says Dean Croke, vice president of Omnitracs Analytics, whose data work encompasses safety and retention.
That’s also the focus for Stay Metrics, which uses driver surveys and recognition and reward programs to boost retention. The industry has long used a generalized approach to fight high turnover, but the future lies in analyzing individual fleets’ unique qualities, says Craig Kinnear, the company’s insights strategist. While some fleets can be outwardly similar to each other, less tangible differences in their corporate cultures can produce much different results in retention.
These analytics providers and their clients have glimpsed not only the potential of predictive analytics, but also the necessity of using data tools to stay competitive.
“It’s just coming so fast,” says Steve Bryan, CEO of Vigillo, the leading cruncher of data from the Compliance Safety Accountability program. “You see big numbers — 40, 50 percent increases in profitability and revenues for those that really embrace this new data world. So it’s going to be hard to see how you opt out of that.”
– MAX HEINE
THE PERCENTAGE of trucks on the road controlled by leased operators and independents with their own authority was about 10 percent 25 years ago, says Todd Amen, president of ATBS,
the nation’s largest owner-operator business services firm. Those numbers are holding steady today and won’t change significantly by 2040, Amen predicts.
What will change is the relationship between leased operators and carriers, says Jay Thompson, principal of Transportation Business Associates, a provider of transport business development, marketing, consulting and training services. Technological advancements that will unite the financial side of the owner-operator business with the systems of multiple carrier and brokerage partners will make it easier for independent contractors to be truly independent, Thompson says.
Tomorrow’s owner-operators likely will specialize in a lane or within a set geography, work closely with more than one carrier and may even “pull a Schneider or Swift trailer from point to point and then get someone else’s trailer to go back,” Thompson says. Having multiple business partners will provide greater independence for owner-operators and could relieve carriers from the threat of misclassification challenges to employee-independent contractor status so prevalent today.
Telematics systems in virtually all trucks will give owner-operators tools to make better business decisions. “You’ll be able to do a better job of personal time-planning and managing your log time,” Thompson says. “Information sharing [with shippers and receivers] will make the flow of freight in and out better.”
Such technological advancements will create “an increasing kind of osmosis between the big guys and the small guys,” he says. “I see it all as an area of opportunity” for small businesses.
– TODD DILLS
MEDICAL FUTURISTS predict a healthier outlook for truck drivers, a profession plagued by high levels of obesity, smoking, heart disease and diabetes, all compounded by a nomadic lifestyle that can make getting proper medical care difficult. Fortunately, technological advancements eventually will alleviate these concerns, says Bertalan Mesko, Ph.D. and medical futurist.
“I believe that much like remote diagnostics for truck engines, ￼Technology will let
remote care or telemedicine will play a large role in truckers’ healthcare,” Mesko says.
Doctors will supervise their patients via smartphones wherever they are located and instantly view an online, updated health profile. Whenever a driver needs medical attention, they will be able to open an application on their device and get access to a doctor via a video consultation.
When it comes to managing chronic conditions, the ongoing “wearable revolution” offers many cheap and effective devices that can measure vital signs and health parameters such as heart rate, breath rate, temperature, blood glucose, oxygen saturation, stress level, daily physical activities or attention, Mesko says.
A contact lens patented by Google measures blood glucose levels from tears. In the case of truck drivers, digital tattoos could notify them through their smartphone if there is a medical issue that needs attention.
Eventually, says Futurist Jim Carroll, “We will move from a health care system that fixes people after they are sick to one that offers preventative diagnostic medicine and treats them for the conditions the data shows they are likely to develop.
“Imagine a trucker settling into his seat before he starts his route,” Carroll says. “The seat has sensors built into it and armrests that can measure his glucose, blood pressure, pulse, temperature and body motions. The data is stored in a cloud, and a doctor can remotely receive alerts and access the data.”
– CAROLYN MASON
COMBINE TOMORROW’S technologically sophisticated trucks with a younger generation more acclimated to computers than wrenches, and you just might have an answer to the technician shortage, experts say.
“There’s such advancement in the technology that it’s become way more difficult to find the right type of skill set,” says Joe Edmonds, Navistar’s project manager for mobile service lane technology. “The days of the old-school technicians, with all the little tricks they know, have long since passed.” And with onboard computers such a critical component, “we need someone who is going to understand down to the actual communication that is going through the vehicle.”
As the number of heavy-truck technicians retiring already outpaces the younger tech-savvy workers entering the field, Edmonds hopes the computer acumen required in the
evolving service bay will become a recruiting point.
“We hope it makes the service technician position more desirable,” he says. “It’s becoming more of a professional-level job.” Technicians who are able to grasp ever-changing innovations quickly will be in higher demand in tomorrow’s shops because they will be key in reducing fleet downtime.
“We’re already getting to the point where we have to have more and more (technicians) that are capable of using a computer and helping diagnose and solve some of the early issues before you get to the technician who is actually touching the component,” says Stephen Roy, president of Mack Trucks North America sales and marketing. “We see this as a way to drive workshop efficiency, and we do that because we can better diagnose the truck.”
– JASON CANNON