As the global pandemic continues, consumer demand for deliveries and durable goods has only gotten stronger, placing pressure on an already strained American supply chain. Complicating these logistics woes, more than 70% of the goods Americans use in their everyday lives are carried by semi-trucks, yet the trucking industry faces a widespread truck driver shortage.
Autonomous driving technology, which can carry out the driving tasks of a human driver and be designed to obey speed limits and stay constantly vigilant, could help relieve the truck driver shortage. It could also supplement the trucking industry and create new types of jobs.
Waymo’s autonomous trucking and local delivery unit, Waymo Via, is testing its autonomous driving technology in Class-8 semi-trucks on highways in California, Arizona and Texas. The company believes autonomous driving technology will make trucking safer, stronger, and more efficient while filling a critical demand for drivers.
What are the reasons for the truck driver shortage?
As the current truck driver population ages toward retirement – the average age of long-haul truckers is 55 – the driver shortage presents a challenge to the industry, especially for long-haul routes.
John Verdon, business development and partnerships lead for Waymo Via, spoke with AzFamily, an independent news station in Metro Phoenix, about the current truck driver shortage and how Waymo Via is already working with trucking companies to address it.
“We are very much focused on automating the long haul highway driving; that’s the hardest trucking job to recruit for, given that a driver has to spend days, weeks away from their family,” Verdon said.
Verdon said the reasons for the shortage are complex but that truck driving is a demanding job and hard to sell in a time in which many people have become accustomed to – or aspire to be – working from home.
Autonomous Trucking Could Boost Supply Chain Efficiency, Utilization Rates
Currently, there are low utilization rates of trucks and lost time due to required human driver breaks. Autonomous driving technology has potential to eliminate that downtime, reduce incidents on the road caused by human error or choice, lower insurance costs, and help ensure shipments arrive safely, securely, and on time.
As traditional trucking companies struggle to find qualified drivers, autonomous truck driving has potential to become a more widely used industry resource.
Arizona State University professor and supply chain expert Hitendra Chaturvedi told AzFamily he believed autonomous trucking would benefit the industry and cut costs of maintenance up to 30%.
“It’s going to increase reliability, it’s going to increase efficiency,” Chaturvedi said. “But in the end, consumers are going to win, and they’re going to win big.”
Chaturvedi also told AzFamily that while some may be concerned about whether autonomous driving will take away human jobs, historically, new technology has always led to new types of jobs.
Autonomous trucking is no exception. Read about some roles Waymo Via has already created since it launched in 2017.
In the face of daily pandemic-induced upheavals, the notion of “business as usual” can often seem a quaint and distant notion to today’s workforce. But even before we all got stuck in never-ending Zoom meetings, the logistics and transportation sectors (like much of America’s economy) were already subtly shifting in the face of continuing advances in robotics, machine learning and autonomous navigation technologies.
In their new book, The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines, an interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers (leveraging insights gleaned from MIT’s multi-year Task Force on the Work of the Future) exam the disconnect between improvements in technology and the benefits derived by workers from those advancements. It’s not that America is rife with “low-skill workers” as New York’s new mayor seems to believe, but rather that the nation is saturated with low-wage, low-quality positions — positions which are excluded from the ever-increasing perks and paychecks enjoyed by knowledge workers. The excerpt below examines the impact vehicular automation will have on rank and file employees, rather than the Musks of the world.
THE ROBOTS YOU CAN SEE: DRIVERLESS CARS, WAREHOUSING AND DISTRIBUTION, AND MANUFACTURING
Few sectors better illustrate the promises and fears of robotics than autonomous cars and trucks. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are essentially highspeed wheeled industrial robots powered by cutting-edge technologies of perception, machine learning, decision-making, regulation, and user interfaces. Their cultural and symbolic resonance has brought AVs to the forefront of excited press coverage about new technology and has sparked large investments of capital, making a potentially “driverless” future a focal point for hopes and fears of a new era of automation.
The ability to transport goods and people across the landscape under computer control embodies a dream of twenty-first-century technology, and also the potential for massive social change and displacement. In a driverless future, accidents and fatalities could drop significantly. The time that people waste stuck in traffic could be recovered for work or leisure. Urban landscapes might change, requiring less parking and improving safety and efficiency for all. New models for the distribution of goods and services promise a world where people and objects move effortlessly through the physical world, much as bits move effortlessly through the internet.
As recently as a decade ago, it was common to dismiss the notion of driverless cars coming to roads in any form. Federally supported university research in robotics and autonomy had evolved for two generations and had just begun to yield advances in military robotics. Yet today, virtually every carmaker in the world, plus many startups, have engaged to redefine mobility. The implications for job disruption are massive. The auto industry itself accounts for just over 5 percent of all private sector jobs, according to one estimate. Millions more work as drivers and in the web of companies that service and maintain these vehicles.
Task Force members John J. Leonard and David A. Mindell have both participated in the development of these technologies and, with graduate student Erik L. Stayton, have studied their implications. Their research suggests that the grand visions of automation in mobility will not be fully realized in the space of a few years.15 The variability and complexity of real-world driving conditions require the ability to adapt to unexpected situations that current technologies have not yet mastered. The recent tragedies and scandals surrounding the death of 346 people in two Boeing 737 MAX crashes stemming from flawed software and the accidents involving self-driving car-testing programs on public roads have increased public and regulatory scrutiny, adding caution about how quickly these technologies will be widely dispersed. The software in driverless cars remains more complex and less deterministic than that in airliners; we still lack technology and techniques to certify it as safe. Some even argue that solving for generalized autonomous driving is tantamount to solving for AGI.
Analysis of the best available data suggests that the reshaping of mobility around autonomy will take more than a decade and will proceed in phases, beginning with systems limited to specific geographies such as urban or campus shuttles (such as the recent product announcement from Zoox, an American AV company). Trucking and delivery are also likely use cases for early adoption, and several leading developers are focusing on these applications both in a fully autonomous mode and as augmented, “convoy” systems led by human drivers. In late 2020, in a telling shift for the industry from “robotaxis” to logistics, Uber sold its driverless car unit, having spent billions of dollars with few results. The unit was bought by Amazon-backed Aurora to focus the technology on trucking. More automated systems will eventually spread as technological barriers are overcome, but current fears about a rapid elimination of driving jobs are not supported.
AVs, whether cars, trucks, or buses, combine the industrial heritage of Detroit and the millennial optimism and disruption of Silicon Valley with a DARPA-inspired military vision of unmanned weapons. Truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics, and insurance adjusters are but a few of the workers expected to be displaced or complemented. This transformation will come in conjunction with a shift toward full electric technology, which would also eliminate some jobs while creating others. Electric cars require fewer parts than conventional cars, for instance, and the shift to electric vehicles will reduce work supplying motors, transmissions, fuel injection systems, pollution control systems, and the like. This change too will create new demands, such as for large scale battery production (that said, the power-hungry sensors and computing of AVs will at least partially offset the efficiency gains of electric cars). AVs may well emerge as part of an evolving mobility ecosystem as a variety of innovations, including connected cars, new mobility business models, and innovations in urban transit, converge to reshape how we move people and goods from place to place.
TRANSPORTATION JOBS IN A DRIVERLESS WORLD
The narrative on AVs suggests the replacement of human drivers by AI-based software systems, themselves created by a few PhD computer scientists in a lab. This is, however, a simplistic reading of the technological transition currently under way, as MIT researchers discovered through their work in Detroit. It is true that AV development organizations tend to have a higher share of workers with advanced degrees compared to the traditional auto industry. Even so, implementation of AV systems requires efforts at all levels, from automation supervision by safety drivers to remote managing and dispatching to customer service and maintenance roles on the ground.
Take, for instance, a current job description for “site supervisor” at a major AV developer. The job responsibilities entail overseeing a team of safety drivers focused in particular on customer satisfaction and reporting feedback on mechanical and vehicle-related issues. The job offers a mid-range salary with benefits, does not require a two- or four-year degree, but does require at least one year of leadership experience and communication skills. Similarly, despite the highly sophisticated machine learning and computer vision algorithms, AV systems rely on technicians routinely calibrating and cleaning various sensors both on the vehicle and in the built environment. The job description for field autonomy technician to maintain AV systems provides a mid-range salary, does not require a four-year degree, and generally requires only background knowledge of vehicle repair and electronics. Some responsibilities are necessary for implementation — including inventorying and budgeting repair parts and hands-on physical work—but not engineering.
The scaling up of AV systems, when it happens, will create many more such jobs, and others devoted to ensuring safety and reliability. Simultaneously, an AV future will require explicit strategies to enable workers displaced from traditional driving roles to transition to secure employment.
A rapid emergence of AVs would be highly disruptive for workers since the US has more than three million commercial vehicle drivers. These drivers are often people with high school or lower education or immigrants with language barriers. Leonard, Mindell, and Stayton conclude that a slower adoption timeline will ease the impact on workers, enabling current drivers to retire and younger workers to get trained to fill newly created roles, such as monitoring mobile fleets. Again, realistic adoption timelines provide opportunities for shaping technology, adoption, and policy. A 2018 report by Task Force Research Advisory Board member Susan Helper and colleagues discusses a range of plausible scenarios and found the employment impact of AVs to be proportional to the time to widespread adoption. Immediate, sudden automation of the fleet would, of course, put millions out of work, whereas a thirty-year adoption timeline could be accommodated by retirements and generational change.
Meanwhile, car-and-truck makers already make vehicles that augment rather than replace drivers. These products include high-powered cruise control and warning systems frequently found on vehicles sold today. At some level, replacement-type driverless cars will be competing with augmentation-type computer-assisted human drivers. In aviation, this competition went on for decades before unmanned aircraft found their niches, while human-piloted aircraft became highly augmented by automation. When they did arrive, unmanned aircraft such as the US Air Force’s Predator and Reaper vehicles required many more people to operate than traditional aircraft and offered completely novel capabilities, such as persistent, twenty-four-hour surveillance.
Based on the current state of knowledge, we estimate a slow shift toward systems that require no driver, even in trucking, one of the easier use cases, with limited use by 2030. Overall shifts in other modes, including passenger cars, are likely to be no faster.
Even when it’s achieved, a future of AVs will not be jobless. New business models, potentially entirely new industrial sectors, will be spurred by the technology. New roles and specialties will appear in expert, technical fields of engineering of AV systems and vehicle information technologies. Automation supervision or safety driver roles will be critical for levels of automation that will come before fully automated driving. Remote management or dispatcher, roles will bring drivers into control rooms and require new skills of interacting with automation. New customer service, field support technician, and maintenance roles will also appear. Perhaps most important, creative use of the technology will enable new businesses and services that are difficult to imagine today. When passenger cars displaced equestrian travel and the myriad occupations that supported it in the 1920s, the roadside motel and fast-food industries rose up to serve the “motoring public.” How will changes in mobility, for example, enable and shape changes in distribution and consumption?
Equally important are the implications of new technologies for how people get to work. As with other new technologies, introducing expensive new autonomous cars into existing mobility ecosystems will just perpetuate existing inequalities of access and opportunity if institutions that support workers don’t evolve as well. In a sweeping study of work, inequality, and transit in the Detroit region, Task Force researchers noted that most workers building Model T and Model A Fords on the early assembly lines traveled to work on streetcars, using Detroit’s then highly developed system. In the century since, particularly in Detroit, but also in cities all across the country, public transit has been an essential service for many workers, but it has also been an instrument facilitating institutional racism, urban flight to job-rich suburbs, and inequality. Public discourse and political decisions favoring highway construction often denigrated and undermined mass transit, with racial undertones. As a result, Black people and other minorities are much more likely to lack access to personal vehicles.
“Technology alone cannot remedy the mobility constraints” that workers face, the study concludes, “and will perpetuate existing inequities absent institutional change.” As with other technologies, deploying new technologies in old systems of transportation will exacerbate their inequalities by “shifting attention toward what is new and away from what is useful, practical, and needed.” Innovating in institutions is as important as innovating in machines; recent decades have seen encouraging pilot programs, but more must be done to scale those pilots to broader use and ensure accountability to the communities they intend to serve. “Transportation offers a unique site of political possibility.”
Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous driving unit, is expanding work with J.B. Hunt and that the U.S. freight-hauling giant will be the first commercial customer for its robotic truck services.
Lowell, Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt, which began a pilot program with Waymo Via, the tech company’s logistics operation, last year hauling cargo in test runs on the I-45 freeway in Texas. Now the plan is for it to be Waymo Via’s first freight partner “when we deploy fully autonomous operations in Texas the next few years,” Waymo said in a blog post. Ahead of that, the companies will expand their test runs using Waymo’s automated big rigs (with human safety drivers as backups).
This strategic alliance “paves the way for us both to help grow the foundations for successful deployment and to capitalize on the benefits of autonomous driving technology,” said Charlie Jatt, Waymo’s head of commercialization for trucking.
The Alphabet unit already generates a small amount of revenue from its on-demand robotaxi service in suburban Phoenix, with plans to expand that offering in the San Francisco Bay region. Yet autonomous trucks and delivery services are quickly becoming a core application of the technology it’s been developing for more than a decade, starting as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Rising demand for freight services, a shortage of long-haul truck drivers and a somewhat simpler operating environment–highways rather than city streets–is intensifying competition between Waymo and autonomous tech rivals including TuSimple, Embark, Aurora and Kodiak, who are all targeting the $800 billion U.S. trucking market.
J.B. Hunt said the multiyear program with Waymo, starting in Texas, will help it learn how to integrate autonomous trucks across its U.S. logistics operations. The companies didn’t share financial details of the partnership.
“Our pilot last year with Waymo Via really helped us get a hands-on understanding of how autonomous driving technology could be implemented within our operations,” said Craig Harper, J.B. Hunt’s chief sustainability officer. “We believe autonomous driving technology will help us create the most efficient transportation network in North America.”
Waymo’s fleet of about 50 AI-enabled trucks, loaded up with sensors including laser lidar, radar and cameras and a high-powered computing system, operate with human backup drivers behind the wheel, for now. Last month, TuSimple completed a “driver out” test run of one of its trucks in Arizona, with no human driver in the cab.
LAS VEGAS: A racecar with nobody at the wheel snaked around another to snatch the lead on an oval track at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan 7 in an unprecedented high-speed match between self-driving vehicles.
Members of Italian-American team PoliMOVE cheered as their Formula 1 racecar, nicknamed “Minerva”, repeatedly passed a rival entered by South Korean team Kaist.
Minerva was doing nearly 115 miles per hour (185 kilometers per hour) when it blew past the Kaist car, easily beating the top speed hoped for by race organisers.
But every racer was deemed a winner by organisers who saw the real victory as the fact that self-driving algorithms could handle the high-speed competition.
“It’s a success,” Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) co-organiser Paul Mitchell said to AFP before the checkered flag was waved.
The race pitted teams of students from around the world against one another to rev up the capabilities of self-driving cars, improving the technology for use anywhere.
In October, the IAC put the brakes on self-driving F1 cars racing together to allow more time to ready technology for the challenge, opting instead to let them do laps individually to see which had the best time.
“This almost holds the world record for speed of an autonomous car,” PoliMOVE engineer Davide Rigamonti boasted as he gazed lovingly at the white-and-black beauty.
The single seat usually reserved for a driver was during this race instead packed with electronics.
PoliMOVE had a shot at victory at another race in October in Indianapolis, clocking some 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) before skidding out on a curve, according to Rigamonti.
On Friday, it was the South Korean entry that spun out after overtaking a car fielded by a team from the University of Auburn in the southern US state of Alabama.
“The students who program these cars are not mechanics; most of them knew nothing about racing,” said IndyCar specialist Lee Anne Patterson.
“We taught them about racing.”
The students program the software that pilots the car by quickly analysing data from sophisticated sensors.
The software piloting the cars has to anticipate how other vehicles on the course will behave, then maneuver accordingly, according to Markus Lienkamp, a professor at Munich, TUM, which won the October competition.
Nearby, Lienkamp’s students are glued to screens.
“It plays out in milliseconds,” said Mitchell.
“The computer has to make the same decisions as a human driver, despite the speed.”
The IAC plans to organise other races on the model of Friday’s – pitting two cars against each other, with the hope of reaching a level sufficient to one day launch all the vehicles together. – AFP
The companies have launched on-demand self-driving car services in Arlington, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The companies say that shows how quickly autonomous vehicle (AV) service can be scaled up to augment public transportation in cities where there aren’t enough buses, subways, or other services.
May Mobility makes self-driving vehicles, and Via offers its TransitTech service that enables the cars to be used for public transportation. They launched the autonomous vehicle service, dubbed Rapid, in Arlingon in March 2021, and it has surpassed 20,000 rides to date.
The cars take passengers from designated pickup points and drop them off at destinations such as downtown Arlington and the University of Texas at Arlington. And before that, the city replaced its fixed bus lines in 2017 with on-demand microtransit, with human drivers serving the city of 400,000 residents. It can also offer door-to-door service for those with limited mobility.
Above: May Mobility and Via provide self-driving car public transit in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Image Credit: Via
The services in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, which launched in August and October 2021, respectively, both also continue to grow in ridership month-by-month.
“At Via, we believe that for autonomous vehicles to reach their full potential as part of large-scale transit networks, they must be on-demand, dynamically routed, and shared,” said Cariann Chan, senior vice president of business at Via. “Our three services with May Mobility demonstrate how launching highly-customized, public AV services using a common software platform is possible for a variety of use cases and geographies.”
May Mobility and Via provide on-demand, dynamically-routed, shared AV services. Each of the three services in the cities is customized to meet the needs of the city and the community it serves. Each service has provided efficient and equitable driverless transportation services — demonstrating how AVs reach their full potential when they are deployed as part of mass transit, the companies explained.
“May has a strong vision on how shared autonomous vehicles can be deployed to complement existing transit and bring value to communities,” said Shana Downs, director of sales and channel management at May Mobility, in a statement. “Utilizing Via’s technology has helped us take that vision to the next level and continue our track record of bringing tangible benefits to riders and communities today.”
Data collected from the city of Arlington’s Rapid service to date illustrates that when AVs are deployed as part of mass transit and scaled efficiently, they can serve as an accessible, convenient way to travel. More than 60% of riders use Rapid to get to essential destinations including work, school, medical places, or shopping.
An overwhelming amount — nearly 90% — of riders agreed or strongly agreed they would ride Rapid again in the future, with a vast majority agreeing that booking their trip and boarding the autonomous vehicle with Via’s rider app and in-vehicle passenger screen was easy.
After riding RAPID, 80% of riders agreed or strongly agreed that AVs can increase the convenience of travel.
Above: May Mobility’s self-driving car. Image Credit: May Mobility
The 20,000-rides milestone in Arlington comes one year after Via and May Mobility announced their partnership in November 2020. The collaboration aims to extend both companies’ reach into on-demand autonomous mobility on a global scale.
The partnership involves integrating Via’s TransitTech software into May Mobility’s existing autonomous vehicles’ platform to support fleet management, booking, routing, passenger and vehicle assignment, and rider experience.
Via and May Mobility look forward to continuing to help cities and communities introduce autonomous vehicle networks as a way to expand access to efficient, equitable, and sustainable public transportation across the country.
Founded in 2012, Via pioneered the TransitTech category by using new technologies to develop public mobility systems — optimizing networks of buses, shuttles, wheelchair-accessible vehicles, school buses, autonomous vehicles, and electric vehicles around the globe.
Via’s aim is to build the most efficient, equitable, and sustainable transportation network for all riders — including those with limited mobility, those without smartphones, and unbanked populations. It has more than 500 partnerships around the world.
May Mobility’s vehicles have given more than 300,000 autonomous rides to date. The company had challenges in the past, but the recent results with Via are encouraging.
By Eric Tanenblatt from Dentons, Supply & Demand Chain Executive
Imagine, if you can, a truck driver who doesn’t sleep but never gets tired. Or a logistics system where the freight driver can run 24/7 without taking a break. The American trucking industry is an essential economic engine and employer. With the help of autonomous technology, the trucking industry can produce better outcomes for consumers, logistics systems and pedestrian vehicles. In an autonomous future, trucking can be safer and more efficient, but reaching this goal will take concerted effort and leadership from developers and regulators.
Autonomous trucking will revolutionize shipping by making transport safer and more efficient. Truck drivers must be well-rested to meet the unique demands of their job. But, this limits the amount of hours trucks can be operating and results in less-efficient outcomes. To address these concerns, companies are using autonomous trucking. To see widespread use, however, autonomous trucks will need to gain the trust and support of the general driving public.
While some autonomous trucks are capable of delivering goods without a safety driver behind the wheel, in the near term most will likely continue to have drivers in the cab while they operate. The presence of a safety driver will lower public concerns. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that many drivers have already shared the road with an autonomous truck and were not aware of doing so. Moreover, the public has become more acquainted with autonomous technology through robots and autonomous vehicles in multiple cities across the country.
Overall, the autonomous industry has been a valued keeper of the public trust and takes safety very seriously. The best thing that companies utilizing autonomous technology can do to encourage public acceptance of autonomous technology is to treat the public with respect, deference and deep caution.
As more companies utilize autonomous technology, consumers will be comforted by new safety standards promulgated by federal regulators. In the past, autonomous technology has grown without strong oversight from the federal government. However, now that the technology has matured and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are starting to hit the road, the industry can no longer operate off a patchwork of state laws and executive orders. Most expect regulators to announce new regulations on AVs in the near future. Earlier this year, the NHTSA issued a standing order requiring the disclosure of wrecks involving autonomous technology, a pre-cursor to regulations. The Biden administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have expressed caution toward the autonomous sector and have stressed the need for policy to “catch up” to the technology.
Regulations are a sign that the industry is maturing. It is due to leaps in autonomous technology that regulators would even consider passing down comprehensive standards. Regulations will help the industry gain the public’s trust. However, regulators should seek to devise a regime that supports truck drivers, defends the public interest and allows responsible companies to test and grow. These interests do not have to conflict and can assist the development of autonomous trucking as a solution to the problems facing the sector.
The trucking industry is a valuable and vital player in the nation’s logistics systems. Trucking companies, however, are staring down a driver shortage that could cripple their efficiency at a time of increased demand. Meanwhile, thousands of large trucks are involved in fatal wrecks every year. Autonomous trucks are a reality, and their continued development could provide an answer to the issues facing the nation’s trucking industry. AV developers must safeguard and continue to build trust with the public. Regulators can assist in this process but must develop standards that allow technology to grow and change. With all these stakeholders working in tandem toward the common goal of autonomous freight transportation, the trucking industry can thrive as it moves toward a bright autonomous future.
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