Autonomous trucking: The benefits, challenges, and timeline

By Tyler Fussner, FleetOwner

LAS VEGAS—During the Truckload Carriers Association’s Truckload 2022 annual conference, a panel discussion titled “Revolutionized Trucking: Realizing the Influence of Autonomous Vehicles on Commercial Trucking” presented the state of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and how they fit in the commercial vehicle market today.

Moderated by Dave Williams, senior VP of equipment and government relations at Knight-Swift Transportation, the panel described the development of autonomous systems, the benefits that autonomously operated vehicles could serve the CV space, as well as anticipated timelines of deployment and the hurdles in place that need to be overcome to achieve real-world applications.

What can AVs do for me?

“I think that the best way to think about the benefits of a Level 4 system is that this is a reliable, consistent supply of drivers that are automated, but drivers that are not subject to Hours of Service,” said Dima Kislovskiy, VP of truck programs at Aurora. “There are two corollary benefits that are super important to call out. One is that there is a fuel benefit.”

Kislovskiy explained that through peak-efficient driving, autonomous vehicles will actualize a reduction in fuel consumption.

The second corollary benefit is safety.

Kislovskiy continued, stating that a majority of incidents with heavy-duty trucks are caused by driver fatigue, error, recklessness, and distraction. Automated systems have the space to step in and improve safety in such areas.

“Safety is really the founding reason that Waymo started working on this technology. And the benefits are really huge,” said Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo. “Not only are traffic accidents extremely grave, but they’re also costly. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimates that truck crashes in the U.S. alone cost more than $30 billion a year. And that doesn’t even include the skyrocketing insurance premiums that you all are facing in your businesses.”

Jatt continued, emphasizing the safety benefits AVs stand to deliver, in that such systems can improve upon what human drivers are capable of through their detection systems.

Furthermore, AVs—being unbound by hours of service—can help to build businesses and reduce total cost of ownership through better duty cycles.

What does this mean for my drivers?

Trepidation exists surrounding autonomous vehicles and that they may exacerbate the need for drivers and compound the driver shortage. However, the panelists put this concern to ease, relaying that autonomy will do more to improve the driver shortage, along with the quality of driver experience and opportunity.

One major point emphasized was shifting the role of drivers covering long-haul operations to the rising demand for regional and delivery operations.

“This dynamic between some of the longer haul freeway portion potentially being good use cases to automate and it being yet a further way off to automate some of the local and regional hauls creates a really good opportunity for this technology to evolve successfully in parallel with the growing need for drivers,” Jatt explained. “The data we’ve seen show it is only going to increase even with successful deployment of autonomous vehicles. And so, there’s a really good success story evolving here around the partnership of this technology and industry—not a story of displacement.”

“We’re not talking about eliminating jobs, we’re talking about creating better jobs where a driver can sleep at home every night. And then those really grueling over-the-road, long-haul miles are being done autonomously,” Kislovskiy added. “You’ve still got this really nice interplay, and it interweaves beautifully into an existing network. It’s a huge value add … . I don’t actually believe this premise that drivers are going to need to be displaced. I think there’s more than enough need right now in aggregate.”

Furthermore, autonomy stands to widen the labor pool by attracting a more diverse workforce into the demanded positions.

“From the study that the DOT did with the Department of Labor, we saw the increase in job opportunities for truck drivers in those regional and short routes,” explained Wiley Deck, VP of government affairs and public policy at Plus. “It also opens up the driver pool. One of the things we asked at FMCSA was, ‘How do you encourage more women to get into the industry?’ And one of the things they look at primarily for them is safety, but also being able to be home, if not every night than every other night, and they’re not away for weeks at a time. So, this opens up the driver pool dramatically. And there will be the need for those drivers to move freight to its final destination.”

“The need for drivers is growing. The need for shipments is growing. And that’s growing faster than what the deployment of autonomous technology will be,” Jatt said. “Can any of us give a prediction exactly how this is going to play out? No, but the trends are pretty clear in terms of that gap between growing need for drivers and expected rollout of autonomous vehicles.”

What are the challenges in deploying AVs?

Building an autonomous driving system is one thing, integrating that system into existing vehicle platforms is another, and deploying such vehicles into the real world in a commercially viable and safe manner is another challenge all together.

Testing and operating today’s autonomous vehicles is heavily constrained upon a patchwork of state-by-state regulations.

“There are a lot of different regulations governing autonomous trucks,” Deck explained. “And what we’re seeing is some states, like Texas, and Florida, and Arizona, and a few others, are allowing wide use and operation of these types of vehicles.”

However, regulations are not consistent nationwide; states like California, New York, and others are “much more restrictive,” Deck said. This patchwork of inconsistent regulations is a challenge, but autonomous system developers are working together to overcome it and influence at-large policy.

“While we may compete on the business side, we’re very much working together to try to work with the states, but also work with FMCSA,” Deck continued. “Because at some point, in the interest of interstate commerce, FMCSA is going to have to step up and create an overarching rule that preempts the states’ laws and set a unified playing field for how these trucks should operate … . Something on that level is going to require congressional action, and the Congress will have to tell FMCSA [what the agency needs to do].”

Setting regulations on autonomous operation is no easy undertaking, as the technology and application is still much of an unknown.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Jatt warned. “It is very easy to overregulate something that we don’t yet understand fully. This technology is still early on in development across the entire industry. We have seen some examples in this patchwork where states have tried to accomplish something in the AV space with regulation, but maybe put in place some rules that had some effects that they didn’t anticipate.”

Another challenge comes in the form of the unknown, or yet-to-be-determined. If an autonomous vehicle is in an accident, who then becomes liable?

“Everybody. That’s the easiest answer to that,” Deck joked. The reality is that this incident will vary, and it yet to have played out means there are many scenarios that are plausible.

“At Waymo, we stand behind our technology: full stop,” Jatt stated. “Our lane is pretty clear, which is we are driving the vehicle. And so, to the extent that there’s an incident that results from driving the vehicle, we stand by that.” Jatt furthered a disclaimer as to his not being an attorney, but fundamentally, the company claims to hold responsibility for its product. However, the case may come down to system maintenance and upkeep.

“If there is a faulty or negligent maintenance issue, where there’s a real clear guidebook of what you’re supposed to do to properly to maintain and deploy an autonomous vehicle, that’s where some of that nuance may creep in,” he added.

Another important detail Kislovskiy pointed out is that an autonomous vehicle is made up through an overall vehicle system.

“Failures can occur at the level of the autonomy software,” he said. “There are also failures that can occur at level of the base platform, and it’s really important to have a very tight partnership with the OEM in understanding how the overall system that gets delivered to a carrier works.”

How does autonomy become something that OEMs can equip vehicles for? Technology partners are working closely with OEMs in this development process to ensure that they are bringing forth the best comparative advantage and expertise for all parts of the aggregate system, Kislovskiy, Jatt, and Deck concurred.

When will AVs be in my fleet?

“This isn’t going to be a flip of the switch, and next day the AV trucks are out on the road,” Deck said. “We’re talking millions of trucks out there right now. How quickly can the OEMs manufacture these trucks to replace millions of trucks? It’s just not going to happen overnight. It’s years out before you start seeing vast quantities of autonomous trucks out on the road.”

Though discussed as a hot topic for years already, the reality is that the development of autonomous systems is only one piece of the puzzle that needs to be completed to deploy AVs at scale.

“We plan to deploy a fully autonomous truck in a limited use case within the next few years, and then expand from there,” Jatt said of Waymo’s current plans. The company is already doing so with consumer passenger vehicles in real-world deployment in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and Jatt suggested that such deployment be monitored to gauge the company’s trajectory for heavy-duty vehicle deployment.

“By the end of 2023, with our partners, we’re launching small, limited pilots where essentially they’re reserving capacity and they’re going to be using the Aurora driver to run fully autonomous loads,” Kislovskiy said of Aurora AV deployment plans. “This is not a one-off demonstration; this is going to be part of their commercial operation. That gives them a chance to experience this technology, understand it, before we ask them to buy assets by 2025. We expect that you can purchase an Aurora driver equipped vehicle from an OEM and then you subscribe to the Aurora Horizon product, which is our driver as a service product, [by 2025].”

“With Plus, we have our Level 4 system as a driver end product right now, so you can get it right now,” Deck said of Plus’ AV deployment. “But for full Level 4 driver-out, we’re also saying 2023 [as to] when we believe our system will be capable. But I don’t think the infrastructure will be there. And I’m not just talking about the roads and highways, I’m talking about the regulatory infrastructure being there … . So, while I think that our systems will be ready by 2023, I just don’t think that anything else will be ready to accommodate, in any scale, these vehicles.”