Image of a Truck with a view of a sensor picking up a vehicle on the road ahead.

Future of work - Truck Automation

The subject of driverless trucks, truck automation and autonomous truck technology has evolved from a distant dream to a serious prospect in what feels like no time at all. According to JD Power, in no more than a decade we could be seeing complete fleets of fully autonomous vehicles.

Although this doesn’t seem like very long, the autonomous truck technology required to create fully autonomous vehicles is more complicated than it first appears, with safety, legislation, security and logistics to consider, achieving a fully automated logistics industry will require a substantial amount of work. 

What is autonomous truck technology?

Truck automation to most of us means futuristic driverless cars that zip around of their own accord carrying out their own tasks. In a broad sense this is almost true - A fully autonomous truck is a self-driving truck requiring no driver at all. 

There is however a spectrum with regards to autonomous truck technology, it is not as simple as a truck with a driver and a truck without. Each level on the automation spectrum denotes a varying degree of driver and autonomous operation ranging from no truck automation to full truck automation:

Level 1 - Driver assistance

One function is controlled automatically i.e. Cruise control with the driver in overall control of the vehicle.

Level 2 - Partial Automation

Automated control over steering and acceleration or deceleration with the driver in overall control.

Level 3 - Conditional Automation

All tasks are automated in some situations i.e. motorway driving but the driver is present to take over for smaller routes, some traffic conditions and unforeseen events.

Level 4 - High Automation

All tasks automated in most environments with driver present to take over where absolutely necessary.

Level 5 - Full automation

Automation controls all roadway conditions and environments without a driver present.

Level 5 - Full automation may seem far-fetched right now but two companies – Einride and Volvo – are in fact testing Level 5 technology in controlled, low speed, short distance environments.

The autonomous trucks currently being tested are eventually intended to operate without humans; to begin with they will be trained on mapped routes, but the overall goal is to have the vehicle autonomously navigate traffic and other events on the roads. The vehicle will need to effectively process information from a wide array of sensors, high-quality cameras, LIDAR (measuring distances by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor) and radar (radio waves) determine the range, angle, or velocity of an object.

TuSimple uses Navistar trucks kitted out with their own self-driving technology that utilises nine cameras and a pair of LIDAR sensors. Although the LIDAR sensors are there, TuSimple are in fact working towards developing a solely vision-based autonomous system, similar to what Tesla uses in its cars.

Which companies are working on self-driving trucks?

Many companies are openly investing heavily to make automated logistics a reality across the board and the race is officially on to be the one crossing the finish line in poll position. The following nine companies are making the most noise about working on truck automation for a range of industries and applications from home delivery services through to long haul logistics:

  • Tesla
  • Uber
  • Peloton
  • Waymo
  • TuSimple
  • Aurora
  • Daimler
  • Volvo
  • Embark Trucks
  • Scania

Companies like Scania and Volvo have already taken some major first steps towards self-driving fleets. In 2016, a fleet of semi-autonomous Scania trucks completed a journey from Sweden to the Netherlands using a technique called platooning, in which a driver pilots the leading vehicle while the other trucks in the convoy follow along automatically.

Is autonomous truck technology safe?

How self-driving trucks will navigate on-the-road situations typically handled by humans is one of the biggest hurdles to achieving fully automated fleets. Many companies intend to have a driver in the truck as a backup just in case something goes wrong. 

Do employers believe that truck automation will do away with drivers?

While there are some concerns and reservations throughout the driving community that as truck technology matures, more and more drivers will be replaced by robots. 

Overall, it is believed that the increased efficiency as a whole will in fact increase demand and require a more significant number of drivers, especially at the start and end of complex long haul routes. Humans will also still be needed for other trucking-related tasks, such as customer service, loading and unloading. 

Self-driving trucks will certainly for the foreseeable future, still require backup drivers for safety purposes. We are quite a way off the level 5 full automation discussed earlier in this article and even then, unless every vehicle is fully automated, and we can entirely remove unpredictable human behaviours from our roads we will be relying on back up drivers to step in and take control when needed.

On the whole, autonomous truck technology is intended to complement the efforts of drivers and ultimately reduce the strain they endure as part of the day-to-day work, not to replace them and so truck automation shouldn’t be seen as a risk to drivers’ livelihoods, nor as a solution to driver shortages. 

Pros of truck automation

  • Increasing levels of automation bring new possibilities for safety and efficiency because it removes the most variable element of heavy-duty truck driving—human error.
  • Truck automation focuses on increasing aerodynamics, saving fuel, and locating ideal speeds for efficiency such as software that allows drivers to locate more fuel-efficient routes.
  • Optimised operating functions such as speed and braking can make automation as good as, if not better than, the most efficient driver.
  • Fully automated trucks could include abilities to improve stability (preventing skidding or rollovers) or faster reaction times and stopping features than most humans can achieve.
  • Increased efficiency of transportation and supply chains because shipping and production schedules will be tied less to the availability of truck drivers, meaning improved delivery lead times and reduced operational costs
  • Eliminates off-hours as a fully automated truck won’t have to take breaks, can work nights and will not be limited by driver hours.

Cons of truck automation

Current liability regulation is based on the premise that vehicles are operated by drivers who can be held responsible in the case of accidents. That, of course, isn’t the case with self-driving trucks and before we can proceed with full truck automation on our roads we need assurance that the responsible party will be held to account when things go wrong.

Are automated deliveries in our future? 

Back in 2016 a report by McKinsey and Company titled ‘Parcel Delivery, the future of last mile’2, predicted that three delivery models were likely to dominate the last mile in the future - autonomous goods vehicles with parcel lockers, drones, and bike couriers. 

Their predictions included that autonomous vehicles including drones will deliver 80 percent of all items while traditional delivery will only account for the remaining 20%. 

What we didn’t see coming was how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic would fast track our need for automated deliveries. The pandemic has put a strain on global supply chains from everything from household goods to medical supplies and PPE creating an immediate opportunity for unmanned delivery vehicles to assist in addressing this demand and help to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

A number of providers,  have throughout the lockdown and quarantine launched the use of automated vehicles to fulfil contactless automated deliveries distributing groceries and medical supplies.

Over in the USA, Reuters, the US Postal Service joined forces with self-driving truck company TuSimple to test self-driving trucks on a bulk-mail route between Phoenix and Dallas in May 2019. The truck, with a safety driver and an engineer on board, made the 2,000-mile round trip a total of five times. The trip usually takes team drivers 45 hours to complete and with traditional trucking methods, paying one driver to drive while the other sleeps is not the most economical solution.

Taking things one step further, Nuro the autonomous delivery van manufacturer have been granted permission to test the first self-driving vehicle designed without any basic human controls such as steering wheels, pedals or side view mirrors on US roads.

Nuro's vehicles are designed to operate without a driver or passengers in them at all, not even a back-up driver. The latest model, the R2 vehicle uses radar, thermal imaging and 360-degree cameras to direct its movement. With two temperature-controlled compartments for goods, the doors raise up to reveal the items once a code has been entered by the recipient.

Nuro has announced that the R2 will be delivering pizza for Domino's Pizza, groceries from supermarket chain Kroger and goods from Walmart during its Houston trial. You can read more about Nuro’s R2 Huston plans here.

What about delivery drones?

Currently four different cargo drone uses have been identified, each aims to automate the transportation of goods while offering faster, more flexible, less expensive and more environmentally friendly service than the alternative:

  • Automation of intralogistics - managing the logistical flow of goods in factories and warehouses.
  • Parcel delivery.
  • Supply of medical goods, normally to hard-to-reach places.

Whilst drones are now accessible to private individuals and have escaped any significant regulation so far, their potential as delivery vehicles has yet to be fully realised. Companies such as Amazon are reported to be pouring funds into finding a way to harness drone technology.

In December 2016 Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos confirmed the first PrimeAIR Drone delivery had taken place in a tweet. The delivery of a bag of popcorn and an Amazon Fire stick was made to an address in Cambridge just 13 minutes after the order was placed. 

Pros and cons of automated delivery services

Faster delivery times, access to hard to reach places and a lower carbon footprint are definite plus points to automated deliveries. 

Achieving the hardware aspect of automated deliveries is probably the easiest part to put in place, the bigger issue could be geographical. If a delivery vehicle can travel up to 60 miles and a drone’s range is just 20 miles, then customers need to be within that radius from a warehouse or other stock holding facility. While many warehouses and depots are in major towns and cities and on good access routes, are they close enough to customers to make fully automated deliveries possible? Amazon recently registered a patent for a beehive-like structure designed to be sited in urban areas to act as a ‘multi-level fulfilment centre’, could solving this issue be what they have in mind?

The idea of automated deliveries becoming commonplace raises plenty more questions than just geographical concerns:

  • Can they be regulated?
  • Will there be so many drones in flight that we won’t be able to see the sky?
  • How secure will the parcels be?
  • Will they get delivered to the intended recipient?
  • How will deliveries to multi-floor buildings be possible?
  • Can the drones and vehicles be hacked and re-directed? 

For now, even with the likes of Nuro stampeding ahead with driverless delivery vehicles, until these questions can be answered and the public re-assured, the traditional parcel courier system looks secure.

Overall, the general attitude toward autonomous trucks remains in flux but it is clear that autonomous vehicles of ever-increasing capabilities will play a significant role in the future of the driving industry as we seek continually an increase in both efficiency and sustainability.

Where next? 

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References

1 JD Power [Internet] July 2019 https://www.jdpower.com/business/press-releases/2019-q2-mobility-confidence-index-study-fueled-surveymonkey-audience  

2 McKinsey & Company [Internet] September 2016 https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/travel%20transport%20and%20logistics/

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