Automation – How to Get From Here to There

The Transport Navigator’s Perspective:
Noël Perry | Transport Futures


Emotion and Economics Sometimes Collide

Two contrary forces make forecasting the adoption of automatic trucks difficult. On the one hand, reducing labor cost and dramatically improving productivity make the eventual use of automatic trucks inevitable. On the other hand, persuading automobile drivers to allow driver-less trucks on their highways will be difficult. Almost as difficult as getting them to fly in an airplane with nobody up front wearing a uniform with four stripes. The easiest conclusion is that the day of the automatic truck is far off; far off enough to delegate their analysis to futurists and an occasional glance at a magazine article. There is plenty of smoke rising about the possibilities, but with precious little flame beneath. In this piece, however, I question the pessimists on truck automation, postulating that the rapid march of technology and the massive benefits from automation will fund a building wave of partial adoptions that will bring home much of the benefits that seem otherwise a prospect for 2035 or later.

Let’s Start with the Technology

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Sometime late next week I will take delivery of a new car. As an aging driver, I have chosen a model equipped with most of the available automated safety devices. This car will keep a set distance behind the car ahead of me, keep me in the lane, tell me when vehicles are in my blind spots, find pedestrians for me at night, and parallel park – all by itself. Ask me about it in a month, and I will undoubtedly have discovered a bunch of other automated features. Oh, yeah, it will constantly monitor engine performance and report results to my local dealer’s service department.

You are probably thinking that I am bragging about my expensive new car. My neighbor just bought a small Toyota that has all the same features except for the infra-red radar for finding pedestrians. This technology means that once I select a top speed and a lane on a properly marked highway, the car will drive itself, in 2019, not 2035. In a month, I’ll tell you what it is like – and, what I am doing while those digital tools drive my car down to Lancaster, PA. Knowing human nature, I won’t be carefully monitoring driving conditions like the safety engineers want us to. I will, under those conditions, be riding in an automatic car.

Sure, that’s cars. But many truckload fleets are specing the same tools. Their trucks will be moving automatically right next to me the next time I drive down the Pennsylvana Turnpike toward Philly.

So What? The Public Does Not Want Driverless Trucks

I mention the technological progress for two reasons. First, this growing wave of features has major safety implications. I am paying much more for this new car of mine, explicitly for the safety effect. I want a car that will stop automatically if the car in front of me slows unexpectedly. Eventually, the states and insurance companies will incent the adoption of such devices, as the Fed’s already have in the requirement for backup cameras in 2022. The second reason is familiarity. As these features become common, people will become used to them, just as we have become used to cruise control, an automated driving function that has been available since the 1970s. As less and less attention is required to move the car safely, the jump to fully automatic operation will become much easier. Moreover, the acceptance of partially automatic features will become easier. For example, you can now install cameras instead of mirrors on a big rig. What? I’m sharing the road with an 18-wheeler with no mirrors? Anybody who already has a backup camera knows that’s a good thing.

Humans Will Still Be In Control

We’ll still require a human to control every truck for at least 15 more years, so why should I pay attention in 2019? You should, because entrepreneurs lusting over technology sales and the huge benefits of automation are already crafting, what I call “partial automation tools” (PAT’s) that are and will provide more than enough benefit for adoption. By my calculations, we can get 75% of the benefits of automation while still providing human management of every truck on the highways. Here’s how. I’ll limit my discussion to just three examples. There are many more, but the three should be enough to get your juices going.


Example No. 1 – No permission needed to automate off road: Can’t mix robots and humans? Go to any high-end warehouse, and you will find plenty of automation working right beside humans. In that space, automation is well beyond the experimentation stage and will be fully mature by the end of the 2020s. The same thing is happening in off-road trucking applications, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. The Port of Los Angeles is serious enough about implementing automated spotting of containers that the unions are already protesting. Mines are also operating automated mine trucks. Expect the same thing in intermodal terminals and large distribution centers that maintain trailer pools.

Example No. 2 – Reducing driver skill requirements: Do you need a commercial license to operate an elevator? If the truck drives itself, shifts its own gears, and automatically backs up how much skill will the driver need? As the job looks like a monitoring job, the drivers will begin to look more like the people we meet in parking garages then the road warriors we know now.

Example No. 3 – Remote operation: This is the big opportunity. Visit the training center of any big trucking fleet, or airline for that matter, and you will see no machines, only big TV screens, and computers. All the training is done via simulators. As the power of telemetry, cameras, and sensors grows, the possibilities for remote operation of trucks will grow too. If the U.S. Forces can bomb ISIS from a computer station in Virginia, monitoring and controlling truck operation from an air-conditioned office is child’s play. This technology will flourish, and sooner than you think because it does two powerful things. First, it forgives the remote “driver” from sleeping in a truck and bouncing along the road for 10 hours a day. The job will be available to anyone.  No more driver shortages. Second, when the remote driver finishes their shift, a new remote driver will move into their seat, and the truck will keep moving. Now it will get 20 hours a day of movement rather than the eight that is typical today. Surely, there will be resistance to the idea. But safety studies will quickly show that a remote ‘driver’ equipped with a full suite of cameras and other digital devices, operating from the comfort of an office, will perform better than those in the traditional driving-from-the-cab mode.

It Won’t Be Business as Usual Much Longer: As you consider these ideas, or others from more creative people than a 72-year-old economist, recognize that many of these partial solutions are already well into the adoption stages, some already delivering benefits, with others promising benefits shortly. This suggests a three-phase adoption process leading up to the beginning of full adoption in 2035.

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•   Phase one, 2019-2025 will witness gradual, but steady familiarization with the new technologies, as with the bells and whistles on my new car. It is essential that market participants take part in that familiarization, so they are well up the learning curve when the technologies and their applications begin to achieve critical mass after 2025. This phase will include the first significant operation changes in places where regulatory approval is easy to obtain, including off-road automation. Safety will be the prime benefit from this phase.

•   Phase two, 2026-2030, is when sufficient changes will be underway to warrant major attention from all participants in the market. The first big changes in driver skill requirements will appear during this phase, along with the first prototypes for remote operation. The first positive productivity effects from automation will also appear at this time.

•   Phase three, 2030-2035, will see the aggressive adoption of many intermediate automation technologies, sufficient to generate large productivity effects. Driver demand will recede, and prices will begin their strong falling trend.

These changes will define YOUR careers! I write this piece to combat the widespread belief that trucking automation is an interesting, but abstract idea from some distant time, just like the flying cars from the Jetsons cartoon of the 1960s. Only industry people over the age of 60 will be gone when the momentum begins to build in earnest, and only then for those planning a near-term retirement. Those of you over 40 will be the key managers of these changes, and those younger will be the key implementers. Given the radical nature of these changes, your companies’ survival will be at stake.

With such high stakes come large opportunities. Of course, if you are on the warehousing side, you are already in an implementation stage. Peter Drucker, the great management thinker of Post World War II American Business, said that senior managers should spend half of their time managing the process of change. You would be wise to take
Mr. Drucker’s advice right now.       

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

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