CNS 2018: Autonomous vehicles may be inevitable, but will they be embraced?

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. – The mention of autonomous vehicles tends to conjure images of flying drones and quadcopters. But Dan Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), said that the vehicle that will have a far more immediate and lasting impact on cargo will be autonomous trucks, although it may be some time before such robotic vehicles will be embraced globally.

In the Tuesday session, “The Future of Autonomous Vehicles in the Air Cargo Industry,” Murray gave the CNS Partnership crowd a “primer” on the industry’s ambivalent attitudes about so-called “driverless vehicles” in the trucking and air cargo worlds.

First of all, there’s the name. While technologies such as radar, and its laser-based cousin, “lidar,” will allow long haul trucks to operate without human intervention, Murray said he doesn’t foresee a time when a trucks will be completely “driverless” during a truck’s journey. Instead, the technology will allow a human operator to take breaks and naps during the long, open-road portions.

Murray also noted that the air cargo industry is much farther along than the trucking sector, in terms of automation, since the aviation business has had autopilot technology that allows pilots to take breaks and naps on long, trans-oceanic flights. Most of the change today, he added, will be adding similar technology to long-haul, 18-wheeler trucks.

According to a survey of thousands of trucking executives and drivers, conducted annually by ATRI, autonomous trucks will help solve two of the most pressing problems in the trucking industry: a shortage of qualified drivers and the much-loathed electronic logging device (ELD) requirements that all drivers must perform. The ease of the burden on truck driving that automated system can provide will make the profession “much more attractive to today’s 18-to-20-year-olds” and can perform all ELD duties automatically.

Once the systems are in place, Murray said some regulations will likely have to change, such as the required 30-minute breaks that require drivers to park at the side of the road and rest every few hours, and the ban on cell-phone use under “distracted driver” ordinances. “The truck can perform all of the tasks without driver, so a break won’t be needed,” he said. “And it will also cut down on the time needed to find a parking place for the rigs, which drivers say is one of their major complaints about the job today.”

Besides the currently high initial costs of installing these automated systems, another potential hurdle will be the public acceptance of trucks on the highways when drivers are apparently not behind the wheel. Many state troopers told Murray that they will continue to pull over vehicles that show any signs that the driver is distracted in any way or not paying attention to the road, so the switch to autonomous vehicles will not happen overnight.

“This technology simply will not work unless regulations change,” he concluded.

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