March 2, 2017 12:00 AM, EST

Almost Driverless Trucks Are Coming Soon, Say Panelists

Ognen Stojanovski by Joseph Terry/Transport Topics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Perfect driverless trucks that can operate flawlessly in all conditions are still several decades away, but their very capable cousins that do well in limited circumstances are far closer, panelists said here at an industry discussion event.

An executive with Otto, the autonomous truck division of Uber, offered a prediction on the progress of technology.

“We build self-driving trucks,” said Ognen Stojanovski, Otto’s head of policy and government relations. “This technology is already here today, and more technology is coming soon.

“You’re not going to see lots and lots of robotic trucks or [loading] dock-to-dock driverless trucks,” Stojanovski said. What’s coming instead are “plenty of limited-use cases that can use it.”

Bill Kahn, principal engineer for advanced concepts at Peterbilt Motors Co., fleshed out some of the approaches his company, a division of Paccar Inc., is taking.

Systems for lane-keeping, platooning and adaptive cruise control combine to do more so the driver doesn’t have to. When asked for a prediction by moderator Richard Bishop, Kahn said auto-parking for loading docks, highway auto-pilot and traffic-jam assist could all be in commercial use five years from now.

The panelists spoke at a Feb. 27 subcommittee meeting of the Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting. Bishop is also chairman of the subcommittee.

The technologies Kahn mentioned would allow drivers to do other things or maybe even rest if a truck is spending extended time on a highway or in a traffic jam, including waiting at a port.

Skip Yeakel, principal engineer for Volvo Group North America, endorsed automated parking and said there already are examples of highly automated trucks that run off-road, especially in mining applications.

Bishop said the Society of Automotive Engineers uses a six-point scale from 0 to 5 in discussing autonomous vehicles, with zero as no automation and five as fully driverless.

In October, Stojanovski’s Otto colleague, Anthony Levandowski, told an American Trucking Associations meeting that Level 5 driverless trucks are 20 to 30 years away. Stojanovski did not disagree with his partner, but concentrated on those Level 2 to 4 incremental steps.

“In five years, you will see a noticeable amount of trucks with no one behind the wheel, but still in the truck,” he said.

Consultant Paul Menig, CEO of Tech-I-M, found the panel very noteworthy.

“The virtual has come down to reality,” he quipped after the panel. “We heard a lot more realism about this today versus what we might have heard six months ago.”

A driver might be necessary for getting a truck to the highway, and from the highway to the loading dock, but not for the long stretch in between, he said, or for a long line at a port.