Autonomous trucks present a giant conundrum for the trucking industry.
The big truck companies have to show they are speeding development of vehicles that eventually will become self-driving cargo containers. Shareholders demand that incumbent truck manufacturers such as Daimler, Volvo and Navistar move forward as younger, nimble manufacturers such as Tesla, Embark and TuSimple start to nibble at their heels.
That’s one of the factors behind Daimler’s acquisition of Torc Robotics, a Virginia-based maker of highly automated vehicle systems that the German automaker will use as a steppingstone to commercializing driverless trucks on U.S. roads.
But at the same time Torc’s Chief Executive Michael Fleming is making sweeping statements like, “There is a strong business case for self-driving trucks in the U.S. market,” Daimler tells Trucks.com that it sees “the key role of the driver for the foreseeable future.”
How can both be true?
Volvo, Navistar and the other major truck brands publicly offer up the same conflicting statements, depending on the constituency.
If the driver is here to stay, then why go to the trouble of spending heavily to develop trucks that drive themselves?
The truck companies talk out of both sides of their corporate mouths because if they stated explicitly what they were really up to, some constituency would become ticked off, and that’s bad for business. And in an industry that struggles to find new, younger drivers, trumpeting the possibility that they will eventually be replaced by robots isn’t the smartest recruitment tool.
It’s a tightrope walk. Truck builders have to keep moving toward a world of fully self-driving trucks. Economics demands it. Unlike truckers, robotic trucks won’t have hours-of-service rules that greatly limit how many hours in a day and a week they can drive. Freight will move 365/24/7 without having to accommodate human fatigue and the need to be home for Christmas. Companies not on this technological highway will be left behind.
But even when Martin Daum, Daimler’s global truck chief, buys a company with “robotics” in its name, he can’t admit that the owner of the Freightliner and Western Star brands is pushing as fast as it can to develop robot trucks.
Here’s why. Truck manufacturers have two customers. Major motor carriers such as Knight Transportation and U.S. Xpress purchase the bulk of what truck manufacturers build. Smaller fleets and independent truckers also make a source of good business, depending on the brand. Each of those constituencies fulfills an important function that smooths the transit of about $700 billion in freight annually in the U.S. The big fleets sign long-term contracts with shippers to reliably haul their goods. When the large motor carriers or shippers get in a jam, they can turn to independent truckers and small fleets to plug the gap.
What independent trucker is going to purchase a vehicle from a company that has an overt, public agenda of replacing drivers with robots?
The big motor carriers provide shippers with a complex service. They pick the best routes; they know where to transfer goods; they screen and hire drivers; they perform maintenance; they purchase fleets of trucks. These are all value-added tasks that just a minority of shippers want to perform themselves.
What happens when the truck becomes a robot? Now, the truck can figure out the best route. There’s no need to get a skilled driver because all robots will be competent. Maintenance can be performed by contractors at central depots. The truck will determine its own maintenance schedule and will monitor wear and tear, often getting problems repaired well in advance of a breakdown. It’s likely that the future robotic truck will be an electric or a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, technology that’s expected to be less finicky than a diesel combustion engine mated to an automated manual transmission.
What Happens to Carriers?
This is a world where much of the value-added service is performed by the vehicle itself. The manufacturer replaces the motor carrier. How many sales will Daum, or Troy Clarke, the chief executive of Navistar International Corp., make if they start talking that up? This scenario only encourages retail giants such as Target, Walmart and Amazon to move even deeper into operating their own fleets. They replace motor carriers as the primary customer of the truck manufacturers.
Anybody paying attention to the constant announcements by manufacturers of new electric trucks and the installation of automated systems such as automatic emergency braking, automatic lane centering, blind-spot alerts, predictive cruise control and advanced telematics should see that that is where trucking is headed. These features are the building blocks of a robotic truck.
Daimler flat-out says it plans to commercialize what the automotive industry calls Level 4 autonomous trucks that can perform all driving tasks and monitor their surroundings for hazards within 10 years. This is a truck in which the robotic system would do all the driving in most circumstances, but a driver would still be able to take control of the vehicle.
To be sure, this is going to take time to play out. Besides the technical hurdles, there are myriad obstacles. Who will hold the liability for crashes involving the trucks? Will state and federal regulation allow for robotic driving? Will security issues be solved so that robotic trucks can’t be weaponized by terrorists? Will the general public rebel with fear of artificial intelligence and block commercialization?
Beyond Level 4
But if Daimler and other truck makers can get to Level 4 automation, will they stop there? If the truck already can do everything, why have the expense of the driver and all the limits that entails in the cab? There are even risks. Studies show that handoff from robot to driver is never smooth.
“We found that human drivers over trusted the technology and were not monitoring the roadway carefully enough to be able to safely take control when needed,” autonomous vehicle developer Waymo learned from its research.
One entity has to be in full control of the vehicle. Human or robot: Pick one.
Economy will choose the robot. Forces within a free-market economy push unneeded costs out of the system. Once robotic truck technology is viable, shippers will demand their cost savings. If Daimler and the legacy truck companies don’t provide it, another manufacturer or startup will. The self-driving truck genie won’t stay in the bottle.