When Will Driverless Trucks Replace CDL Drivers?

Self driving trucks are coming soon. But how soon?
Self driving trucks are coming soon. But how soon?

We saw this in the Wall Street Journal about a month ago.

Daimler Demonstrates Driverless Tractor Trailer

Daimler Expects to Be Able to Mass Produce ‘Future Truck’ by 2025

During a demonstration on a still unopened stretch of the A14 highway near Magdeburg in eastern Germany, Daimler put the driverless “Future Truck” through its paces. A driver, who was only identified as Hans, sat behind the wheel, alternately driving and being chauffeured, as the truck maneuvered through a series of simulations of realistic traffic scenarios. – FULL ARTICLE

It got us thinking. So here is what our “research” shows:

When Will Driverless Trucks Hit the Open Roads

Well before driverless trucks can actually hit the roads, there has to be a legal framework for licensure and use.  There is a movement afoot to do just this, annd is in part driven by the driverless car technology being developed by Google and other more traditional auto companies.

A few states are already allowing driverless vehicles.  Nevada was first in 2011 and as of the end of 2013, three other U.S. states, (Florida, California, and Michigan), and the District of Columbia, have enacted laws addressing autonomous vehicles.

Laws for computer controlled trucks are already being developed.
Laws for computer controlled trucks are already being developed.

Of course we all know that DOT isn’t going to be left out of the picture, and the NHTSA has also promulgated the necessary regulation to allow for the experimental use of driverless commercial vehicles.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today announced a new policy concerning vehicle automation, including its plans for research on related safety issues and recommendations for states related to the testing, licensing, and regulation of “autonomous” or “self-driving” vehicles. Self-driving vehicles are those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.

“Whether we’re talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future, our top priority is to ensure these vehicles – and their occupants – are safe,” said Secretary Ray LaHood. “Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term, while the recommendations to states help them better oversee self-driving vehicle development, which holds promising long-term safety benefits.”

NHTSA’s policy addresses:

  • An explanation of the many areas of vehicle innovation and types of automation that offer significant potential for enormous reductions in highway crashes and deaths;
  • A summary of the research NHTSA has planned or has begun to help ensure that all safety issues related to vehicle automation are explored and addressed; and
  • Recommendations to states that have authorized operation of self-driving vehicles, for test purposes, on how best to ensure safe operation as these new concepts are being tested on highways.

Several states, including Nevada, California and Florida have enacted legislation that expressly permits operation of self-driving (sometimes called “autonomous”) vehicles under certain conditions. These experimental vehicles are at the highest end of a wide range of automation that begins with some safety features already in vehicles, such as electronic stability control. Today’s policy will provide states interested in passing similar laws with assistance to ensure that their legislation does not inadvertently impact current vehicle technology and that the testing of self-driving vehicles is conducted safely.

“We’re encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology.”

The policy statement also describes NHTSA’s research efforts related to autonomous vehicles. While the technology remains in early stages, NHTSA is conducting research on self-driving vehicles so that the agency has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles, should the vehicles become commercially available. The first phase of this research is expected to be completed within the next four years.

NHTSA’s many years of research on vehicle automation have already led to regulatory and other policy developments. The agency’s work on electronic stability control (ESC), for example, led to a standard mandating that form of automated technology on all new light vehicles since MY 2011. More recently, NHTSA issued a proposal that would require ESC on new heavy vehicles.

NHTSA defines vehicle automation as having five levels:

No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.

Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.

Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.

Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.

Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

View NHTSA’s statement of policy on automated vehicles.

When Will CDL Drivers be Replaced by Driverless Trucks?

Well this one seems to be a mixed question of economics and politics.  On a strictly economic analysis, once the cost of automation falls below the cost of a driver, companies will begin making the switch.  This is according to the Register happening in remote mining areas, where labor costs are extremely high and the conditions inhospitable.

Driverless trucks roam Australian mines

210 tonne monsters haul 300 tonnes of dirt with GPS guidance

Mining company Rio Tinto has turned to driverless trucks to operate mines in Western Australia.

The multinational digger has just confirmed it has let the trucks roam free at the Nammuldi iron ore mine, a hole in the ground located in more or less the middle of nowhere, as the nearest town, Tom Price, is 60km away. Nammuldi and Tom Price’s climates are unrelentingly unpleasant. Workers are hard to come by and the cost of living is high. Even those hardy folk that do work on site often do so on a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ basis that sees them spend a fortnight or so on site before retreating to a more pleasant locale…..

So if the cost of running a driverless truck can be lowered, then the likelihood of adoption increases, and much with more utilization prices will fall further, so we can expect to see inroads made on the highest cost and least desirable jobs first, then followed by other cheaper positions.

That is of course only if it becomes acceptable to the public at large.  The idea of driving on the road with driverless trucks may not be politically palatable to drivers, nor citizens in general.  According to a piece by Neal Peirce of the Washington Post;

A nationwide switchover to full and legal use of driverless vehicles could take many years – and a lot more proof of their safety. “We believe the individual should always have the ability to disengage and take over the system of a vehicle,” James Pisz, Toyota’s North American corporate business strategy manager, told a recent “Meeting of the Minds” policy conference in Toronto…  …Bottom line: Truly independent, self-driving vehicles won’t change our urban and metro form soon. But in 10 to 20 years, they might.  See article

And of course there’s this;

Survey: Most U.S. Adults Fear Riding in Driverless Car

Eight-eight percent of adults would be worried about riding in a driverless car, according to a recent survey commissioned by Seapine Software.

The survey, conducted online by Harris Interactive among more than 2,000 adults ages 18 and older, indicated that 79 percent of U.S. adults have concerns about equipment failures, such as a braking software glitch or a failed warning sensor. – FULL ARTICLE

There is also the possibility of resistance at a political level from truck driver constituencies such as driver’s organizations and unions.  These groups will likely argue safety is only assured by a human being, and that even if the truck is driverless, it should still have an emergency back up, a human driver.  They would also likely argue the risk of hacking such trucks makes act of terror more likely as well.

FBI warns Google’s driverless cars could be used for terrorism

An internal FBI report obtained by The Guardian says that self-driving cars have the potential to be used as “lethal weapons” in the future.

The report, written by the Strategic Issues Group of the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence, warned that self-driving cars “will have a high impact on

Grab lunch while your truck jockies the yard and picks up a load?
Grab lunch while your truck jockies the yard and picks up a load?

transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.” In other words: There could soon be self-driving car bombs. – Full Article

So when will driverless commercial vehicles displace hard working drivers?  It’s hard to say, maybe never. What is clear is that the political and social implications, along with the safety and security issues will make the process stretch out for a decade or more.  In fact we’re so confident that quality CDL drivers will be needed for years to come, that we we’ve made of career of it ourselves.