When does a technology really grow? When it is attached to a need. When it comes to the movement of freight, one megatrend driving the need for better technology is the driver shortage.
What would most revolutionize trucking over the next few years? The most obvious answer is autonomous trucking. But when will this technology become operational? Will it take decades? A decade? Or can we get there in the next few years? That is the core question.
And the answer to that question depends upon just what type of autonomous technology you are talking about. Are we talking about assisted driving technology? Autonomous trucks in truck yards? Autonomous truck conveys? Or autonomous trucks moving on the Interstate? Those technologies all have different timelines surrounding their viability.
The Talent Shortage
The ongoing truck driver shortage is not going away, as more drivers retire, and companies continue to struggle to hire a younger workforce. Just how bad is the driver shortage? According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry is currently short 80,000 drivers. The ATA has a National Private Truck Council that allows for benchmarking on driver turnover. In the last benchmark, truckload carriers with more than $30 million in annual revenue averaged 90% driver turnover.
Higher pay may be exacerbating the problem. Drivers don’t have to spend as much time on the road to make the money they desire. Regulations regarding drug testing, licensing qualifications, and safety enforcement – which are all good things – add to the difficulties carriers face in attracting drivers. This is clearly a critical problem.
Safety should always be a concern for a trucking firm. But young, single men are particularly apt to take risks. In the current legislative environment, this is a problem. Prior to passage of the infrastructure bill, the rule was that 18- or 19-year-olds could get their commercial driver’s licenses, but they were not allowed to cross their state line until they turn 21. But the infrastructure act included apprenticeship provisions for young drivers. The infrastructure bill would establish a pilot apprenticeship program overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that would allow 18 to 21-year-old drivers to participate in interstate commerce apprenticeship programs. If carriers want to hire more young drivers, they would be well advised to make sure this pilot goes well. Technology can help. Driver assistance technology can improve safety. One solution in this area comes from Nauto.
Nauto bills itself as “the only AI-powered, driver and fleet safety platform that predicts, prevents, and ends distracted driving. 26 algorithms are examining the video data in real-time. If a collision is imminent, an alarm sounds. The alarm might go off if the truck is approaching a pedestrian crossing the road at too high a speed, if the truck is zooming up on a car that is braking, or if the driver is falling asleep. The inward facing camera is also searching for signs the driver is distracted – eating food, playing with their cell phone, or fiddling with the radio for too long.
Traditional telematics devices are used in trucks use sensors to detect things like hard braking, acceleration, or speeding. In contrast, their devices use computer vision to “look 5 or 6 seconds into the future and predict” a potential collision. If something is risky, an alarm to alert the driver sounds. If a collision is not imminent, but the driving is not safe enough, the device will tell the driver to slow down, watch out for a pedestrian, or follow at a greater distance.
The devices are surprisingly inexpensive, costing $350-500 per vehicle per year depending upon the volume of devices purchased. These kinds of solutions have been available for a few years and customers report robust reductions in safety incidents. But the drive towards employing younger drivers, could provide a real boost for this already rapidly growing market segment.
Truck Yards and Autonomy
Using autonomous trucks in a truck yard comes with lower risks for a logistics service provider, shipper, or carrier. If there is an accident, it will not be a family of four that is in a fatal accident with an autonomous truck.
Golden, CO-based Outrider has accepted this low-risk approach to experimenting with truck autonomy. The company operates a truck yard in Brighton, where a fleet of robotic trucks ferry semi-trailers between assigned spots and warehouse doors for 16 hours each day while a few humans keep watch. Here is how the yard works. Human over-the-road truckers drop off semitrailers containing anything from food to electronics to toilet paper at a warehouse yard. Then, an Outrider robotic truck takes over. Using proprietary software, a human queues up a truck to retrieve the specific trailer. The robotic truck then drives through the yard to the location of a specific trailer, relying on a combination of sensors. Once in position, a robotic arm extends from the back of the truck. It scans the face of the trailer before connecting a pressurized air hose, which disengages the trailer’s parking brakes. Then, the arm hitches the trailer onto the truck and the truck pulls the trailer across the yard to a warehouse door. Once connected to the dock, humans take over again, unloading goods and processing them for delivery.
Locomation is on track to deploy their convoy technology around the country next year. In September 2020, the company announced what they claim is the world’s first autonomous truck purchase order from Wilson Logistics. The company says that a minimum of 1,120 Wilson tractors will be equipped with their autonomy system. The first units are to be delivered in early 2022.
The Locomation solution today uses human-led, two-truck autonomous relay convoys with two drivers. Once on the freeway, one driver operates the lead truck while the second truck follows in autonomous mode, with that driver resting off the clock. Periodically, the trucks swap leader and follower roles, allowing the drivers to take turns leading the convoy and sleeping. This model allows the linked convoy to operate for 22 hours continuously under current Hours of Service (HOS) regulations. This means moving the cargo twice as far and twice as fast. Next, Locomation will deploy a two-truck, one-driver Drone Follower system; the timeline for this next stage deployment has not yet been specified.
Autonomous Trucks on the Interstate
The FMCSA regulations for driverless vehicles are still emerging, but states are being allowed a large degree of autonomy in piloting autonomous vehicle programs on the Interstate.
TuSimple – a provider of autonomous freight semi-truck solutions – has said their technology will be operational by 2024. Start-ups have been known to make extravagant claims. But TuSimple has gone public, is now being covered by the equity research firms, and nearly 7,000 vehicles have been reserved by customers. TuSimple’s timeline is looking more and more realistic.
TuSimple (NASDAQ NDAQ +0.6%: TSP) offers a Level 4 autonomous solution. Level 5 is the top of the SAE autonomy scale; a level 5 solution can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform. A level 4 solution can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, but the automated system can operate only under certain conditions.
In TuSimple’s case, “the certain conditions” it will operate in is the “middle mile.” The middle mile is not the “first mile” – the distance traveled between an origin, like a warehouse, and the highway. And it is not the “last mile” – the distance between an exit off a highway to a destination site – a factory, warehouse, or store for example. The TuSimple middle mile will be a terminal near an interstate to a terminal located not too far off an interstate exit.
Overcoming the technological challenges required to operate an autonomous truck has been daunting. TuSimple responded to the challenge be developing 240 patents and testing their trucks over 3.7 million miles. Their technology includes a 1,000-meter perception range, 35 second planning horizon, high-definition maps with accuracy within five centimeters, and a fully redundant sensor suite and components. The trucks are monitored in a cloud-based operations oversight center.
Operating in the middle mile simplifies the technological challenges. It is simpler to operate an autonomous truck on an interstate than the first and last miles. Navigation is also simpler because the trucks will move on defined routes that have been pre-mapped in a manner that the truck computer understands. Further, the middle mile offers fewer “edge cases.”
Edge cases represent situations that could adversely affect driving performance that are difficult to anticipate. In theory, when an autonomous semi-truck encounters a previously unsolved edge case, it will pull over to the side of the road. Or “edge cases” may represent situations that can be anticipated but that are difficult to build math that can effectively respond to the situation. Bad weather is an edge case. Currently, TuSimple is being tested across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas; all states where snow and heavy fog – difficult edge cases – are less common.
TuSimple is offering freight as a service to shippers and carriers. A customer would purchase TuSimple’s fully autonomous semi-trucks directly from a semi-truck manufacturer. The customer would then pay $0.35 a mile for access to the right to move freight on the company’s autonomous freight network. This freight capacity would come at a 10%-15% discount to the prevailing cost to move freight. Drivers account for 40 percent of the cost of the freight move. The discount is made possible by eliminating driver labor in the middle mile. Based on the driver shortage, the savings being projected may be conservative. Further, autonomous trucks do not face hours of service regulations, the requirement that drivers get a certain amount of rest. Because the trucks will not speed, there will also be fuel savings and a lower carbon footprint.
Safety and regulatory concerns are the main issues that could delay the deployment of the TuSimple technology. While TuSimple has simplified the autonomous driving problem, they have almost certainly not discovered all possible edge cases and built out the math to respond to those anomalous driving situations. In the Risk Section of their initial public filing, the document states “although we believe that our algorithms, data analysis and processing, and artificial intelligence technology are promising, we cannot assure you that our technology will achieve the necessary reliability for Level 4 autonomy at commercial scale… we are still improving our technology in terms of handling non-compliant driving behavior by other cars on the road and low reflectivity objects and performing in extreme weather conditions… There can be no assurance that our data analytics and artificial intelligence could predict every single potential issue that may arise during the operation of our … autonomous semi-trucks.” Safety could also be affected through third party cyber-attacks on their network.
Nevertheless, TuSimple has convinced sophisticated partners, customers, investors, and financial analysts that mature autonomous solutions could be markedly safer than human driven vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94% of all accidents involve driver-related factors. Carriers are very familiar with all the driver behaviors that lead to accidents – drinking, drugs, fatigue, distraction, driver health issues, aggressive driving, and outright stupidity. An autonomous system does need to effectively perceive the driving environment. But the human health, emotional, and behavioral contributors to accidents are eliminated.
Currently, 24 states allow level 4 autonomous semi-truck commercial deployment. If no tragic accidents occur that result in negative publicity, and that this in turn does not cause the regulatory landscape to tighten, the year 2024 will be the start of the autonomous driving race to replace human drivers. But even in 2024, these trucks will not be running across all lanes nationwide. Rather there will be a focus on delivering across targeted lanes for select customers. The autonomous trucking revolution is going to happen. And it is going to happen sooner rather than later.
Finally, there are also cost issues. A January 2021 DOT report suggests that “only 48% of trucking firms would be able to buy the technology in the decade after it becomes available.” Just because a technology is feasible, does not mean it will be widely deployed.