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July 15, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT

Fleet Executives See Opportunities, Limitations in Self-Driving Technology

This story appears in the July 11 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Truck makers and suppliers are investing heavily in vehicle automation technology, but what do their end customers think of it?

Several fleet executives said they were optimistic about the prospect of self-driving trucks, while others cited limitations or expressed concerns.

“Autonomous driving vehicles will eventually be here, but you still have to have an individual in the truck away from home for periods of time,” said Britt Colley, president and chief operating officer at Epes Transport.

Sidney Brown, CEO of NFI Industries, said his company sees self-driving trucks as “part of the future, and we are excited about it.”

“However, the technology needs to meet safety requirements, and there will need to be confidence in the safety for not only drivers but the public as well,” he added.

Bill Bliem, NFI’s senior vice president of fleet services, said the fleet would consider purchasing self-driving trucks “once there is a proven track record that they can operate safely.”

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Tom McKenna, senior vice president of engineering and technology at Penske Logistics, said he sees several obstacles to truck automation.

“While autonomous vehicles and platooning may be long-term disrupters, the current consensus both within Penske and in the marketplace is that the deployment of these technologies will face extended challenges from a legal, social and political perspective,” he said.

Aaron Thompson, executive vice president of trucking operations for Bay and Bay Transportation, agreed that there are “major hurdles to overcome.”

“The first would be cost,” he said. “The economics of freight rates today barely keep up with the rising cost of equipment.”

The insurance industry, unions and public-interest groups also could delay large-scale deployment for years, Thompson added.

“Finally, the motoring public has yet to accept a 4,000-pound self-driving car, much less an 80,000-pound autonomous truck,” he said. “It is surely something we as an industry should be advocating for and supporting, but it is not likely to be ‘disruptive’ in the next few years. Five to 10 years is more likely.”

Fred Smith, founder and chairman of FedEx Corp., spoke in favor of regulating more safety technology during a recent media roundtable in Washington.

“We are campaigning at FedEx as fast as we possibly can for the installation of lane departure controls and automatic collision braking,” which can apply the brakes about one second, or 150 feet, faster than humans.

“We don’t understand why [the Department of Transportation] does not mandate that for every large truck in the United States. Washington loves regulations,” he said. “This is a regulation that would be tremendously beneficial and definitely save lives.”

Smith said there are clear safety benefits to vehicle automation, adding that he views it in much the same way as robotics or autopilot in FedEx’s 777 aircraft. It’s an “undeniable fact” that the technology is safer than what the best human can do, he said.

Other fleets said automated driving may not be right for their operations.

“I do not see the potential for autonomous vehicles or platooning due to the areas we operate being very congested metro areas,” said James LaMarca, partner and executive vice president at System Freight Inc., based in Jamesburg, New Jersey. “The technology will need to be developed and tested and proven safe beyond any doubt before we could foresee deploying those technologies.”

Chris Glitz, senior vice president of operations for the Evans Network of Cos., said, “We don’t see an impact of new vehicle technology on intermodal for quite some time because of the use of independent contractors. Those technologies really appear to be better suited to asset- based carriers.”

Likewise, autonomous driving is unlikely for hauling hazardous materials in the near future, said Reggie Dupre, CEO of Dupre Logistics.

“In time, they will be used, but not now, in our opinion,” he said. “The use of automated vehicles hauling other commodities, however, may free up some over-the-road drivers for hazmat service.”

Daniel P. Bearth and Neil Abt contributed to this story.