The view of trucking from Princeton

October 2018

John Bendel

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Professor says technology’s value is in improving safety, not eliminating the driver

Trucks without drivers are a bad idea. But trains without crews? That’s a good idea. And this could have consequences for the truckload business.

So says Dr. Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering, at Princeton University. Regular Land Line readers may remember Kornhauser’s remarks in the August issue about truck platooning. He’s not a big fan.

The value of a driver

That was interesting, to say the least, so I asked his views on other technology – particularly autonomous trucks. He supports the technology with reservations but not without a driver. The professor appreciates drivers.

“Driving a truck is not a simple job. Driving for 11 straight hours and if you fail to pay complete attention, basically, you die, is a really tough job. I don’t think it’s stressed enough. You know, everybody talks about a driver shortage out there. I guess my opinion is because it’s such a tough job,” Kornhauser said. “So anything that can help the driver have a better life and not be as stressed trying to put food on the table for his or her family is an enormous contribution.”

Beyond operating the truck, he said, drivers also oversee the load. There’s value in having a driver with a load – even if he or she isn’t actually driving, he explained.

“There’s 53 feet by 102 inches and whatever cube back there that’s valuable. That load probably deserves a human attendant who accompanies it in its travels,” Kornhauser said.

“I don’t see a great need to have the driver take a truck to the interchange where it just goes by itself to the next interchange where there’s somebody waiting to take it the rest of the way. It seems a little bit too gimmicky. Keeping the driver as an attendant to the goods being transported has value. And that value will be recognized by the logistics industry,” he said.

Improving safety

Kornhauser believes the value of technology lies less in eliminating the driver than in increasing safety.

“Improving safety doesn’t mean taking the driver out of the loop. It means putting in technology to provide the driver with what I like to call a get-out-of-jail-free card. In case something starts to happen, (the technology) keeps the truck from crashing,” Kornhauser said.

That technology is evolving, according to Kornhauser, but not fast enough.

“The systems aren’t as good as they could be,” he said, citing the example of automated braking systems that activate at the wrong time.

“Systems are set to work when time to a forward collision drops below 1.6 seconds, but that isn’t appropriate in all situations. When one truck needs to accelerate to pass another in traffic, for example, the time to collision is less than 1.6 seconds, yet they’re fully in control of the situation. And, in fact, one wouldn’t want an automated braking system to suddenly intervene. So these systems have to become enormously more intelligent.

“But as these systems get better, then, of course, one can begin to talk about, well, can the driver start taking his or her hand off the wheel and off the brakes and talk about the self-driving. But it’s a self-driving system in which the driver is still in the cab. Maybe the driver could actually sleep or rest. But I think the fact that (technology) can improve the comfort and convenience of trucking is a substantial contribution to the industry,” Kornhauser said.

Making railroads competitive

The professor wants the driver to stay in the truck, but feels differently about the engineer on a train.

“One of the things that was done in the mid-’70s was the work rules in the rail industry were changed from five-person crews to two-person crews,” Kornhauser said. “What I think the railroad industry needs to do now is to buy out the last two jobs.”

In other words, trains should be totally automated, shorter and much more frequent.

“Railroads – given that they have an exclusive right of way – their opportunity for providing safe, driverless mobility is substantially easier than driverless trucks on I-80 or I-10,” he said. “If you stand by a rail line, the amount of time there’s a train on that piece of track is infinitesimal. You could be moving, you know, so many more entities, one after the other, not necessarily separated by one second but maybe separated by one minute, and provide much better services.”

Kornhauser believes rails are an underused asset.

“It’s unbelievable. And the reason it’s underused is because of the labor requirement,” he said.

Kornhauser pointed out that shorter trains would not require the massive engines in use now.

“I mean, there would be inventors and designers coming out of the woodwork looking to scale the motive power to do that. Then you could talk about individual motor units,” he said.

That could make it possible for railroads to compete for the higher-value freight that moves by truck – not everywhere, of course, but at least along their rights of way. Containers could be on the rails and on their way almost as soon as they reached a rail yard. A day or more could be cut from most container shipments. Given the low power and no labor requirements, they might even cost less.

“Now, you know, some of the trucking industry may not like it because all of a sudden this is a competitor for some of their business. But I think in terms of society and in terms of improving quality of life for a lot of folks, I think it might be a slightly better balance,” Kornhauser said.

But it’s not likely to happen in the near future.

“Not enough people are talking about doing that in the rail industry. I mean, they can’t even get their PTC working (Positive Train Control is a safety technology required on many trains by the end of 2018). They haven’t entered the 20th century yet, and we’re almost 20 percent through the 21st already,” he said.

What about the truckload business today?

“For the last 20 years, people have been trying to improve truckload and find better ways to do load boards and the various other technologies that exist. But it has not improved much over 20 years. It’s still, you know, kind of helter-skelter. It should’ve improved more,” Kornhauser said.

We will probably see that improvement eventually. Even after more than 40 years applying digital technology to transportation challenges, Kornhauser said. “We’re still at the very beginning of it.” LL

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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.