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Drivers Still Wanted as Autonomous Truck Tech Faces Long and Winding Road, Experts Say

Drivers Still Wanted as Autonomous Truck Tech Faces Long and Winding Road, Experts Say

Technology proponents see automation as aid to driver, not replacement, in short-term as challenges persist for driverless truck.

Technology gets a bad rap as a job killer, but can it actually help recruit and retain truck drivers? Peloton Technology Chief Executive Josh Switkes thinks so.

Switkes tells the story about a truck driver that approached a Peloton team at a fuel stop during a road test of the semi-autonomous platooning technology. The driver was interested in Peloton "because what it was doing was so cool," Switkes said.

"The driver kept talking until we agreed to hire him," Switkes said. "If you are trying to hire an 18 or 20 year-old, they are going to be more excited about flying a fighter plane than an Airbus."

Switkes offered the anecdote during a panel discussion on the state of autonomous trucking at a fleet technology forum sponsored by Piper Jaffray. Automation is advancing, the panelists agreed. But with many hurdles yet to clear, drivers will remain behind the wheel for a long time.

The driver shortage should make the case for automation much stronger. Thanks to raises and signing bonuses, the American Transportation Research Institute says the per-mile costs of driver wages and benefits are the highest in four years.

(Source: ATRI)

(Source: ATRI)

Even with those higher costs, new automation and other technologies aim to enhance driver awareness, and not take over their job, says John Townsend, vice president at sensor maker Velodyne LiDar.

"All the things we add (in truck automation) help the driver do their job better," Townsend said. "It means that it reduces some of their stress and improves job retention."

Jon Morrison, who heads the Americas unit for components maker WABCO Holdings (NYSE: WBC), says the use of automation could help drivers increase productivity if, say, being in a platoon does not count toward hours of service. But he says automation still remains a "tricky subject" with drivers as technology looks to replace many of their tasks.

New recruits into trucking may have "at best a 10-year future and then face being replaced," Morrison said.

Peloton's Switkes says technology does mean "some route miles will require fewer drivers or allow use of lower skilled drivers." But the business case for implementing new technology has to be clear, Switkes says.

In Peloton's case, platooning technology, which is considered a Level 1 automation, reduces fuel use about 7 percent on average between the lead and following truck.

Left to right: John Townsend of Velodyne LiDAR; Paul Konasewich of Paccar; Josh Switkes of Peloton; and Jon Morrison of WABCO Holdings.

Left to right: John Townsend of Velodyne LiDAR; Paul Konasewich of Paccar; Josh Switkes of Peloton; and Jon Morrison of WABCO Holdings.

Trucking companies "are happy to pay for platooning for the fuel saving," Switkes said. "But they don't want to pay for more automation until it provides other clear benefits. Automation for automation's sake doesn't make sense."

Still, even that pitch might become harder as diesel trucks get more efficient anyway. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency says 2018 model-year trucks are getting between eight and nine miles per gallon, compared to a fleet-wide averages of six to seven miles per gallon at the end of 2017.

NACFE Executive director Mike Roeth agrees that platooning is viable today. But he calls it a "high risk, high reward" technology. He says the fuel savings for platooning might be smaller than what's been billed given the time spent in forming the platoon and the aerodynamics of other cars and trucks on the road.

"The reality is that you will never be able to platoon 100 percent of the time. If you put platooning on your trucks, there's going to be time when it's going to have to get on freeway, burn some fuel and finding another truck to platoon with," Roeth said. "We believe in real world there's a bankable 4 percent because of these factors."

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Truck maker Paccar Inc (NASDAQ: PCAR) is working on what's known as a Level 4 prototype truck, according to director of business development Paul Konasewich.. That would allow it to traverse interstate highways autonomously before being handed off to a driver at the local or regional level

But Konasewich says the current generation of sensors for autonomous trucking still finds it difficult to navigate in poor weather while drivers can make it through even bad conditions. Likewise, drivers can make much quicker decisions in uncertain events such as an accident or debris on the road.

"This idea that suddenly we are going to wake up and that there are going to be all these fully autonomous trucks running around is a fantasy," Konasewich said. "We see a lot of (autonomous truck) demos, but it's hard to tell from just one ride how close this is from going to market."

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