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Shifting to Automation: Discussing the impact of Truck Platooning & Autonomous trucks

Assuming you are in the trucking industry since you are reading this blog post, you likely have seen tons of articles and commentary on truck platooning, self-driving trucks and autonomous trucks. It often seems like these terms are used interchangeably, but there are quite big differences.

To clarify the different terms and describe their potential impact on Bison Transport and our industry as a whole, I dove into these topics with Trevor Fridfinnson, Bison's Chief Operating Officer.

We cover a lot of information, but we focus on these questions: 

  1. What is truck platooning?
  2. What is the difference between truck platooning and autonomous trucks?
  3. What are the 5 levels of autonomous trucks?
  4. How will truck platooning and autonomous trucks impact professional drivers?
Wistia video thumbnail - Shifting to Automation - Autonomous Vehicles &amp; Platooning Discussion

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Lionel: What exactly is truck platooning and what potential impact will that have on the industry?

Trevor: The concept of truck platooning is thought to be an intermediary step between more advanced driver-assisted technologies. And essentially, what's involved with it at this stage is to be able to take two otherwise independent tractor trailers operating on the road and to be able to wirelessly link those vehicles together. And the principal advantage that is being sought after in that is to be able to close the gap on following distance where the typical minimum following distance might be 300 or more feet between vehicles, depending upon the speed that they're operating at, down to as low as 50 feet. 

The lead truck would actually get a fuel efficiency gain in their testing trials of about 4%, the second or following truck would have a fuel efficiency improvement of about 10%. So, given the extent of the expense that fuel represents in our business when you start throwing those kinds of numbers together you say "Okay, well that's interesting." But then the principal question that we always come back to ask ourselves and say "What's the impact to the driver? Is this a positive scenario that can improve either safety or quality of life, quality role in the business?” And that's what we're interested in exploring is to say "Is this something that would be an improvement in those categories or something?"

Lionel: Let's talk about autonomous trucks or self-driving trucks. What term should we be using? What do they actually mean and are there different levels of autonomous trucks?

The whole category around autonomous is, I’ll say, distinct from platooning in that it's certainly trying to assist the individual driver in their given vehicle. The way it's categorized today is, in fact, by levels and it will go from Level 0 to Level 5 in most of the common conversation around autonomous vehicles. And level zero means essentially zero technology assistance, level five means full technology assistance, a human would not be required to operate the vehicle. We are today in the middle of that and it's important to note for everybody is that, it's a rather new subject in terms of its mainstream pickup and how it's happening in the last five years, it's really gained momentum.

But at Bison we've been investing in and having levels of success with forms of technology that would move us up that scale like adaptive cruise, like lane departure warnings, like radar systems that are on the vehicles to help identify where there might be a potential obstacle that wouldn't be readily apparent and those things.

So, it's certainly been part of our belief that whenever we can use technology to better support our drivers, to create a safer operating environment for them and for the vehicles that we share the road with, it makes sense to pursue. The buzz around autonomous is really speaking into the fact that technology continues to improve and the capabilities of it are thought to be much, much higher than they were a number of years ago. That's the part I think that we really have to get into proper context to say "How real and achievable are those things?"

I would say it's not an imminent undertaking that we would see happening in 2017 but if everything would line up appropriately I think that trials for us could be possible in 2018. Where we would say, “Let's see if we can platoon Bison vehicles together,” and have that evaluation firsthand about the driver experience, what that's like, what's the benefit of it from a driver experience. Are there any downside effects that we should understand? And really carefully evaluate and are the savings real?

Lionel: What regulatory changes need to be in place for these trucks to allow truck platooning?

Trevor: Each jurisdiction that manages their own roadways needs to give approval for a development of this nature. Obviously, we share the roads with the with the general public and we've got to be able to demonstrate that we're doing so responsibly and do it to benefit to everybody that does involve. The initial forays into it and probably avoid to a degree by the publicity around autonomous vehicles is pretty receptive like there...where there have been trials done in the US, there's been states, very willing to have that legislation. There are states that have autonomous vehicle legislation that's coming on very quickly.

They recognize that this technology to varying degrees is there and to varying degrees is viable. And so they want to be hospitable to those situations. But at the same time, not allow industry or enthusiasts to get ahead of themselves and potentially do things that are not gonna be but instead are gonna be counterproductive to all the stakeholders.

Tesla Electic Autonomous Truck Image The Guardian.jpg

Read: Tesla seeking to test driver-free electric trucks on public roads [The Guardian]

Lionel: Let's pretend that truck platooning were here today. What are the potential differences for a driver, how could their job change, would they be involved in different things? 

Trevor: Well, this is the fundamental question and it's the one that we really asked ourselves as a leadership team and really took time to research and investigate it and really understand it. And so I wanna be really perfectly clear on this is that through everything that we look at and for how we understand our business, our industry the nature of the role of the driver, the capabilities of the technology and the practical limitations of the technology, we see the drivers roll continuing to be integral for the foreseeable future. 10 years out plus that we absolutely need qualified, skilled, capable drivers to demand our equipment and to do the jobs that they do so well today and that is to drive safely.

What we see as logical changes to the roll over during that period is that is the technology is going to continue to improve to make their job safer and potentially more productive. And I'll talk about the safer aspects first and say the whole notion, and our drivers know this as well as anybody, is that as we've introduced technology over time, and certainly much of it with great promise and great capability, there's a variability in terms of how it performs in the daily and real world rigor and does over time.

As we've seen evolution in things like adaptive cruise and onboard radar systems and lane departure scenarios. And we've seen the technology go from being, I'll call it relatively clunky and often cumbersome, giving false positives, backing off in situations that seem to be without cause or reason, all the rest of it. We see a roadway here to say, "The technology is gonna continue to improve." And it has already in our experience in the fleet and that's gonna continue to improve to make those functions more and more capable in their day-to-day application.

With that, we see our drivers able to be perform more safely,  have less personal risk and have less risk in the elements above. We shouldn't have a rear end to head collision in our future, we shouldn't have a lose-control, single vehicle off the road scenario in our future; like those things hold a lot of promise that we can all get excited about and say, “These are great things. We need to figure out how to best integrate these things reasonably over time to improve the careers of our driver.”

Read: 2018 Freightliner Pre-Series Hits Bison's Fleet

Lionel: I've heard recently in terms of general access at least, that the internet is approximately 20 years old around now and that still only 10 or 15% of commerce as online. And you think about how easy it is to buy… if we were 20 years ago, we probably would have thought that everyone would be shopping only online by now, so it often does take longer for technology to reach critical mass. Do you agree and could this apply to truck platooning and autonomous trucks? 

Trevor: Yes. There are a lot of examples of this actually. Think about voice recognition technology in computers, and now all of the progress with Apple’s Siri, the Amazon Echo, etc. Tools like these, have gone from a novelty and a nuisance and something that's frustrating to use to something better and it's still not without its limitations.

People forget that that technology has been around for over 50 years. When voice recognition technology was new people thought that we would never need to type again. 50 years later and that still isn't the case. On the flip side, I wanna be cautious and know that we've lived in an era here where there have been absolute revolutions in place in much quicker than people might have anticipated; the smartphone is one of the most common and outstanding examples of that piece.

So, we need to balance it and recognize as incumbents in the industry, the case where those insiders with their views of what they know can often miss some things that those outside of the space can do, and that's how the term disruption is really coined. So, we want to be really conscious about that know that there is technology that does work and that does make step change. Let's make sure that we get the pieces of that do and are respectful of the limitations or challenges that may result in some pieces of it.

At the same time, it's gonna be an opening up of potential for people that maybe at some point the thought driving a truck was too difficult and I mean, the concept of split shifting in 15 gears and clutching up, all the rest of the deal, it pretty intimidating. It was certainly enough to, limit my miles I'll tell you that. But to say that, undertaking that task in the future could be easier to learn and more appealing once you do learn that you have support systems around you that make the job more diverse and more enjoyable. The profile of the role stands to go up in that regard.

I think you are right, the responsibility of operating on our roadways, is not as appreciated quite as much as a pilot is today.  An interesting analogy that I got this from listening to a podcast where an airline pilot sort of gives people the inside scoop about the industry and about the job and all the rest of it. Because we all are appreciative of pilots that do their work well, especially when they're flying us around.  He made a very interesting comparison that I think is notable on the subject and it’s the fact that the airline industry and what goes on when aircraft is in the air and moving from terminal to terminal is a very orderly process. The rules are understood by everybody that's involved and everybody abides by them or else, you're not in the game.

He said “So, I go from this environment and I do a transcendental flight from New York to London and I go to my home in London and then I go drive my car, to get home after getting off the plane. And the roadway is relative chaos. It’s total disorder. There's no general laws but there are gray areas and people are continually flouting them, and there are a lot of distracted drivers." And he said, “You couldn't imagine this going on in the air.”

And so you when you think about it, the complexity of what it takes to do the job that our professional drivers do, and anybody on the roadway, for that example, is immense. It's almost a little bit backwards in terms of what is it actually take to drive a safe mile, a million safe miles, and do the rest of it.

Please comment below: What do you think about truck platooning and autonomous trucks? Which technology is most likely to gain acceptance in the short and long term? 

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