The Future of Autonomous Vehicles Looks Bright

Noël Perry | Transport Futures


Two fundamentals guide the slow but inexorable adoption of autonomous trucks. The first has little to do with trucks. It involves cars. The public will be very reluctant to accept autonomous trucks. There is enough fear of big rigs, let alone trucks with no one in them. Yet consider the horrific facts of auto safety. More than 40,000 Americans died on the roads last year. Human error caused 90 percent of those tragedies.

All of us cause accidents through inattention, not to mention speeding or driving under the influence. Fortunately, most of those mistakes can be corrected by the technology steadily being installed in our cars. My wife’s car already has an automatic braking function that would have prevented a fender-bender caused in her previous car. My next car will have full, automatic breaking, meaning that I will probably never again hit another vehicle I am approaching. Here’s the point. Americans will urge their legislators to mandate such safety features, including many not yet available.

But will this lead to autonomous cars, or just human-controlled cars with vigorous safety backup? It will be the former for a simple reason, time. The average American spends about 25 days a year in a car. With fully autonomous technology, that time can be put to better use, either in the car, or better, out of the car. I already pay Amazon for giving me the time to search for many products. I will gladly pay to eliminate the rest of those 25 wasted days.

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But, what about the inevitable failure of  technology? The answer is in probabilities. Humans are notoriously unreliable operators of any equipment. Machines are much more reliable. Take elevators, a technology largely untrusted, and human operated, 100 years ago. Yes, they fail, even today, causing about 27 deaths in the United States a year. That is on a total ridership of 18 billion. So the odds are 666 million to one that you will arrive at your chosen floor safely. Certainly, automobile operation is more complicated. That will put more pressure on autonomous technology. It also puts much more pressure on the human-operated alternative.

Finally, consider the case for human-supervised automation as is currently required for all autonomous vehicles. The headline-grabbing accidents of those vehicles all point to a simple truth. Humans lack the attention span and reaction time to handle anything but the most benign failure of technology. Tell me that a robot is going to do my job and my mind will wander. So, if we mandate the automatic car technology and allow people to use it, we will have to mandate their driverless operation. When that occurs, we will mandate it for trucks too. If I don’t want to be next to some driver in a Ford looking at his smartphone, I certainly don’t want a driver in a Peterbuilt doing it. That is the big takeaway for trucks. Allowing autonomous trucks depends on autonomous cars.

Still, it will take a decade or two for the technology and public attitudes to mature to the point of full autonomous operation. Does that mean that today’s truckers can just evaluate the developing technologies for safety purposes, ignoring the driver impact? Economics suggest not.

Currently, the average heavy truck is moving only about 8.5 hours per day. Most of the rest of its day is spent resting with the driver, a minimum of 12 hours when the 34-hour restart is factored in. This means that an autonomous truck would double its hours moving per day and halve its transit time. This productivity and service opportunity is the biggest since the building of superhighways in the 1950s. Entrepreneurs will be scrambling for ways to realize the improvement through hybrid systems before the politicians allow fully autonomous operations.

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Consider, for instance, the automation of operations within private property where access is controlled, and government permission is not required. It already appears in port operations. It will certainly lead to an increase in drop-and-hook operations where the line-haul, driver-operated tractor will drop the trailer at the edge of the property for autonomous placing within. A second idea involves the dumbing down of the driver’s job. Consider that the driver of 30 years ago had to nurse a 200 hp engine while handling a 17-speed, two-stick manual transmission, all while reading a map with only minimal contact with dispatching. Today’s driver has a 500 hp engine with automatic transmission, automatic navigation and constant contact with dispatch. If he has a new truck, he can’t speed or tailgate, and every unusual movement of the truck is recorded for evaluation. Soon he will have automatic backup and automatic lane keeping. Clearly, the technical and judgment requirements of what is still an often difficult job are rapidly lowering. One can envision an uber-like driver pool that could provide slip-seat drivers as the rig moves across the interstates. The truck would keep moving – and the driver could get home. The same economics would flow from the remote operation of trucks. If the U.S. can bomb Syria from a workstation in Virginia, a driver could drive a truck remotely. Moreover, with good cameras, that driver would have a better view of the road than he does now in a far less-distracting environment.

While it is difficult in 2019 to pinpoint the timing and sequences of these changes, the benefits from keeping the rig moving are more than enough to fuel a ferocious march of technology. We are already surprisingly far down that road. Give the entrepreneurs big incentives, layer on a driver shortage, and you will get lots of change sooner than you think. I see significant innovation within 10 years.

One final point, perhaps the greatest unknown. After all I said about the unreliability of human operation, we also must be aware of the extraordinary capability of the human mind. These automated tools will be freeing up the capability of more than 3 million Americans who currently
drive trucks. How might we use that capability on new, higher value work, especially if leveraged by new tools? That is the ultimate frontier in this revolution.

Noël Perry is Principal with Transport Futures, located in Lebanon, PA. He can be reached at

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