The autonomous vehicle industry grows as the world watches

February 2019

John Bendel

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Autonomous vehicles are a really big deal – at least as far as news coverage is concerned. Major media outlets like The New York Times now have reporters assigned to the subject. For example, the hot new, high-profile, general news outlet called Axios produces a regular newsletter called Axios Autonomous Vehicles.

More importantly for trucking, Transport Topics, the weekly paper published by the American Trucking Associations, has added a regular newsletter called TT Autonomous to its lineup that includes TT Equipment, TT Technology, TT Safety, TT Government, and TT Logistics. Transport Topics is probably the most-read trucking publication for carriers.

Yet few technical developments have been reported lately. Most – though not all – of the news is on the business. Even while truly driverless trucks won’t be hitting the road soon, big players are placing big bets. Most say they’re not trying to replace drivers, that drivers will always be there to oversee the robotics. The size of their investments – those bets – tells another story. Daimler Trucks at least acknowledges that reality. Last year, Daimler committed $2.5 billion for research and development when they launched the Automated Truck Research and Development Center in Portland, Ore.

“Daimler Trucks believes that fully autonomous – driverless – commercial trucks will not be series-produced in the near future,” the company said in a news release. “However, the technology has the potential to create numerous advantages for the global logistics industry by helping fleets to keep up with ever-increasing freight demands as the pool of long-haul truck drivers continues to decrease.”

That’s a long, long way of saying, “We’ll help fill that pool with robots.”

Besides Daimler, Volvo, Paccar, and others are developing autonomous truck technology. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, 62 companies now have permits to test self-driving cars in the state. The number of companies testing autonomous trucks there and elsewhere has not been specifically reported.

But the testing goes on and the wider business world is watching. Forbes Magazine ran a profile of Alex Rodrigues under the headline “This 23-year-old prodigy is leading the pack in the driverless truck race.”

Rodrigues is the CEO of San Francisco-based Embark Trucks, which has retrofitted Peterbilts to drive themselves. Last year, Embark ran a driverless truck (with a driver) from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla., probably less for testing purposes than for media attention. In a more practical vein, Embark has been operating its autonomous trucks along Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix hauling paying freight, much of it from Electrolux, the appliance maker.

Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO of Starsky Robotics in San Francisco, was interviewed recently by Medium, a provider of thoughtful content for online publications. Seltz-Axmacher described his current efforts to develop and commercialize truck driving by remote control, an idea he has more or less pioneered. Big players, he explained, are seeing the wisdom of his approach and are working in that area as well.

“The idea that a computer controls a moving vehicle all the time is one of the stupid parts of the industry’s dogma,” he told Medium.

Another widely reported story came from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm based in New York, laid out its vision for the future of autonomous trucks. In a report titled “Distraction or disruption? Autonomous trucks gain ground in U.S. logistics,” the company said within the next two years we will see truck platooning. One truck will be able to follow closely behind another when both are connected electronically. There will be drivers in both trucks.

Between 2022 and 2025 we will begin to see platoons in which only the lead truck has a driver. The truck or trucks following will be autonomous. From 2025 to 2027, totally driverless trucks will appear – individually or in platoons. These trucks will only operate on interstates between ports at specific interchanges. There, drivers will move loads to and from shippers and receivers. As early as 2027, according to McKinsey, we will begin to see totally autonomous trucks hauling from point to point on all kinds of roads.

Maybe McKinsey customers will make money from these projections. But I wouldn’t count on it – especially that last one. Fully driverless trucks in irregular-route service in nine years? I’ll keep my money under the mattress, thank you.

It did not make the national press, but one company thinks driverless trucks – at least of the interstate-only kind – will be coming sooner rather than later. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Jarrett Logistics of Orrville, Ohio, bought a 53-acre property near the junction of I-71 and I-76 in nearby Seville for eventual use as a transfer hub for autonomous trucks.

“When autonomous trucks become commercially available, the transfer hub will allow trailers to be exchanged between driverless trucks and local drivers, Jarrett said. Autonomous trucks would arrive at the hub, with PackShip drivers making final deliveries,” the Beacon Journal reported. PackShip is Jarrett’s final-mile unit. The property formerly belonged to Schneider.

Over time, no doubt, autonomous trucks will evolve. But there’s still a long way to go. Remember, the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey?” It depicted an airline space craft shuttling people from earth to a permanent commercial space station complete with a cocktail lounge.

Well, it’s 2019 and we haven’t gotten even close. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.