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June 16, 2017 4:03 PM, EDT
Fleets Welcome Safety Benefits of Automation but Don’t Expect to See Driverless Trucks Soon

This story appears in the June 12 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Truck makers, technology developers and regulators are paving the way for self-driving commercial vehicles, but the future of the industry ultimately will be shaped by fleets and the extent to which they adopt automated driving capabilities.

Executives at several of the largest fleets in North America offered a range of views.

Most said they believed that the industry and society aren’t ready for unmanned, fully autonomous trucks or that they won’t be available anytime soon, but they welcomed the safety and productivity gains promised by systems designed to assist rather than replace the driver.

“The new driver-assist technology is radically transforming the trucking industry. We can see on the horizon where major accidents and fatalities will be the exception rather than the rule,” said Kerry Stritt, vice president of fleet services for Southeastern Freight Lines, a carrier based in Lexington, S.C.

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Ryder System’s early experience shows driver-­assist and autonomous-vehicle technology will make the industry safer and more efficient, said Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer for Ryder’s global fleet management solutions.

“Within the next 10 years, we will likely see incremental adoption of autonomous features,” he said. “Beyond 10 years, the spectrum of possibilities is wide open.”

However, product validation still will be required, and federal standards related to the technology are needed, Perry added.

Fleets said they are particularly interested in highway autopilot systems, which would enable a self-driving mode while still keeping a driver in the cab.

The “holy grail,” Perry said, would be to reach the point where drivers can let the vehicle operate itself and preserve their available driving time under federal hours-of-service limits.

Royal Jones, CEO of Mesilla Valley Transportation in Las Cruces, N.M., said an autopilot function also could help mitigate the driver shortage.

“If he can get on the highway, sit there, take a nap and let the computer drive, look at the utilization you’re going to get,” he said, adding that truck drivers are asked to leave their families 24 hours a day, even though they are paid for only a portion of those hours. “The driver could get more hours and make more money.”

Scott Perry, Bob Verret, Ron Hall

Ron Hall, vice president of equipment and fuel for Salt Lake City-based C.R. England Inc., said technologies that allow the driver to give up control of the vehicle won’t displace drivers but instead will allow them to become more productive and extend driving time.

However, he is skeptical that the technology is developed enough to be feasible, which is why C.R. England hasn’t formed a solid opinion, he said.

At the annual Stifel Transportation & Logistics Conference in February, Heartland Express CEO Michael Gerdin said the industry would need to undergo many changes before fully autonomous trucks could be used on a large scale.

“Who’s going to do the dropping and hooking? Who’s going to do the [pre-trip inspections] on the trucks? Who’s going to make sure they’re not starting with a flat tire? You’ve got to have a driver.”

He also questioned the value of a highway autopilot system, where the driver relinquishes control and watches movies or plays video games all day in the cab.

“I couldn’t think of a more boring job than that,” Gerdin said.

“I really question whether, in the short term, any of that’s going to come to fruition,” he added. “I think, in the long term, probably after we’re all gone, that will probably be something that the next generation has to deal with. But for us, right now, I think it’s really in the infancy stages.”

Amos Rogan, productivity and efficiency leader for less-than-truckload operations at Averitt Express Inc., said he wouldn’t want a driver to rest while the truck is in motion. Averitt, which is based in Cookeville, Tenn., ranks No. 31 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

He also said that driverless passenger cars will have to prove their ability to operate in a safe and reliable manner before the trucking industry begins pulling drivers out of commercial trucks that can legally equal the weight of 30 Toyota Priuses.

Bob Verret, chief information officer for Dupré Logistics, said he has concerns about litigation related to highway autopilot self-driving or driverless trucks.

“There isn’t a precedent for litigation as far as this technology is concerned,” he said. “While we see that this technology may be only a year or two away, working out the litigious nature of these issues could take up to 20 years.”

The adoption of automated systems also opens us up the risk of finger-pointing, with drivers blaming systems and systems blaming drivers, Verret said.

“We are entering uncharted territory as this technology continues to advance,” he said.

Dupré Logistics, based in Lafayette, La., ranks No. 97 on the for-hire TT100.

Also ranked in the for-hire TT100 are C.R. England at No. 23, Southeastern Freight Lines at No. 28, Heartland at No. 41 and Mesilla Valley at No. 66. Ryder’s Supply Chain Solutions unit ranks No. 13.

Fleets said they would consider adopting the next wave of driver-assist features likely to reach the market, including capabilities designed to help drivers stay in their lanes and deal with traffic congestion.

Verret said Dupré Logistics would be interested in lane keeping assist, which could take corrective steering action when a truck begins to drift out of its lane.

“We believe the adoption of this technology to help the driver get back in the lane would prevent accidents,” he said.

Traffic jam assist, which could enable a truck to creep forward automatically in congested traffic situations, also may be useful, he said. “We could see how this would lower a driver’s stress level in those high-traffic situations.”

Perry said Ryder also would consider deploying lane keeping assist when it becomes available.

C.R. England is eyeing those types of capabilities as well.

“We would be interested in safety-­related technologies like lane keeping ­assist, traffic jam assist and auto docking, where the driver is present and in control of the vehicle,” Hall said.

C.R. England also sees potential safety benefits from vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-­infrastructure connectivity that could integrate with collision avoidance systems.

Truck platooning — wirelessly syncing the braking systems of two trucks to enable shorter following distances that boost fuel economy — also has potential, Ryder’s Perry said.

Many fleets already are taking advantage of the safety systems available on the market today, and that experience is making them more open to future technologies.

Southeastern Freight Lines purchases new tractors equipped with collision mitigation ­systems, lane departure warning systems and blind spot technology.

“All of these systems are the early stages of autonomous vehicles,” Stritt said. “These systems assist the driver in making better decisions while providing earlier warnings and helping take evasive action.”

Ryder provides trucks with forward radar and collision mitigation systems to many of its truck leasing customers and has made the technology standard in its rental fleet.

“We have seen a very meaningful reduction in the frequency and severity of collisions through the use of this technology and promote its use to all of our customers,” Perry said.

In addition to improving road safety and productivity, automated driving technology also has the potential to attract more drivers to the industry, fleet executives said.

Prospective drivers who may have been afraid even to enter the market because of the complexity associated with operating a combination tractor-trailer likely will see the deployment of many of technologies as enablers, said Ryder’s Perry.

“Showing them that these trucks are equipped with this technology can give them the peace of mind that our industry has adapted and is here to help make them safer from day one,” Averitt’s Rogan added.

However, he also foresees challenges associated with the driver and automated systems working in tandem, a problem that industry and regulatory leaders will need to help address.

Over time, as technology continues to advance, driver control will erode slowly until we reach the point where the driver is no longer needed, said Stritt, of Southeastern Freight.

“In the meantime, the driver is still the key component of safety,” he said. 

Seth Clevenger, managing editor of features, contributed to this story.