Photo courtesy of TuSimple

Autonomous Trucks:

Their Current and Projected Path

For years, developers have been working to perfect autonomous commercial trucks. And although progress has been made, questions remain, including how close are they to actually entering the intermodal industry? And what are the remaining hurdles that need to be overcome?

And of particular importance: how could this type of technology impact the intermodal industry?

Currently, there are six levels of vehicle autonomy as defined by standards development organization SAE International. The automation standard developed by SAE, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, ranges from Level 0 – no automation at all – to Level 6, which is fully automated, or completely driverless.

Although the promise of totally driverless trucks has yet to be realized, numerous tech companies are working to make them a reality.

Robert Brown, head of government relations and public affairs for San Diego-based self-driving truck company TuSimple, said that currently entering the market are "Level 2" semi-automated systems where the automated system takes full control of the vehicle, including acceleration, braking and steering. Under Level 2 automation, the driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly.

"You’re seeing that in trucking today, kind of like a co-pilot going along with the drivers," Brown explained. "You’re seeing that on rigs coming out of factories and all sorts of original equipment manufacturers."

The next big step for TuSimple, he said, is SAE Level 4 trucks, which is where attention by a human driver is not required for safety, but autonomous driving is only supported in a limited, mapped out perimeter.

"We will demonstrate that next year," Brown said, "but it’ll be on a very small-scale type of pilot."

The next leap after that, he said, is expected to come in the 2024 timeframe, when commercial truck maker Navistar finishes building a factory that will make long-haul autonomous trucks for customers like UPS and US Express. The trucks will be operated with a virtual driver and TuSimple oversight system.

"Autonomous technology is entering our industry and will have a profound impact on our customers’ businesses," Navistar CEO Persio Lisboa said in a statement.

‘Accelerate the Path’

Another autonomous driving technology development company, Waymo, which is a sister company of Google, told Intermodal Insights that although it has been developing self-driving technology since 2009, its trucks are not yet operating fully driverless.

"But our experience on the car side will help us accelerate the path to that," spokeswoman Julianne McGoldrick said.

"We will likely see fully driverless trucks across the industry begin to hit the road within the coming years. Though it won’t be a flip the switch moment, as we’ll remove the drivers gradually, just like we did on the passenger car side."

"One of the key hurdles in self-driving is ensuring that robust redundancies are in place," she continued. "Right now, there are no off-the-shelf trucks with all of the redundant safety features important for full self-driving, such as redundant braking and steering. To tackle this challenge, we’re using our learnings and methodical approaches from the passenger car side to work with OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers to quickly develop L4-capable trucks."

Tier 1 refers to vehicles that provide steering or brake acceleration to support the driver, such as lane centering or cruise control, but must be constantly supervised by an in-vehicle operator. Level 4 refers to vehicles that are not actively driven by a human when automated features are engaged, but driving is limited to a defined area.

"Some people have talked about how this is going to be intermodal 2.0 — not as a threat to intermodal — but as a supplement, where autonomous vehicles can extend the rail and open new markets."
Robert Brown

This year in its trucking program, McGoldrick said, Waymo is mainly focused on freeway testing.

"The conditions on these routes are ideal to start this deployment since long stretches of highway miles tend to be the most tiring for humans to drive," she explained. "When we switch our focus to surface streets, we’ll have a built-in advantage from our experience with surface streets from our Waymo One [ride hailing service]and local delivery operations with passenger cars."

‘Game Changer’

Brown said that the intermodal industry could be substantially impacted once autonomous technology progresses to the advanced stages in the years to come.

"This technology is truly transformative; it’s going to really supplement intermodal," he predicted. "For the large fleet customers, it’s going to be another tool in their toolbox. Some people have even talked about how this is going to be intermodal 2.0 – not as a threat to intermodal — but as a supplement, where autonomous vehicles can extend the rail and open new markets that were proven difficult."

One way that rail is moving toward the future of autonomous technology is a touchless automated in-gate system that BNSF is piloting at its South Seattle Intermodal Facility. It’s a pilot program that TuSimple’s Brown said holds a lot of promise for eventual use with autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks because BNSF’s automated gate system works more efficiently and can admit trucks into the facility faster.

An article with more information on rail technology developments can be found elsewhere in this issue.

"The touchless in-gate pilot has demonstrated how we can enhance our customers’ facility experience," BNSF Business Unit Operations and Emerging Technologies Director Jim Pang said in a statement. "The use of these tools simplifies the communication between BNSF and our shipping partners, which provides further opportunities to advance intermodal and supply chain efficiencies."

McGoldrick said that for Waymo, it’s a bit early to definitively say or understand the exact impact self-driving technology will have, but that it could be expected that its self-driving trucks could be applied into different intermodal routes that exist today.

For example, in the case of picking up and dropping off containers at various terminals and ports, self-driving trucks could be added into those routes, allowing for further efficiency, she said, while also potentially providing more supply to enable even more runs, in addition to the ones already covered by human-driven trucks.

Self-driving trucks may also help better serve regions of the country that don’t currently have strong rail options for intermodal moves, she added.

Industry Acceptance

The question remains as to how accepting the intermodal industry will be of automated vehicles in the years to come, but McGoldrick said that in her company’s conversations with fleets and other industry stakeholders, Waymo has seen "curiosity and excitement" about the benefits this technology can offer.

"We have been humbled by the positive reaction we’ve gotten from everyone and continue to see that people are excited about the technology," she said.

Brown added that he expects to see the more innovative companies in the intermodal industry prepare themselves for the emergence of autonomous vehicles.

"People are very excited about the technology, but there also is some hesitancy about it, whether it’s a workforce implication or a negative disruption," he said. "But we definitely see this technology as a positive disruption for the intermodal business."

Driver Safety

Ellen Voie of the nonprofit advocacy organization Women in Trucking Association said her organization is in favor of automation, with one of the reasons being the potential for increased safety.

"Driver safety is a very high priority for female drivers," she explained. "Every piece of technology that is used for automation removes driver error. Whether it’s lidar, radar, lane departure warnings, and even dolly cranking automation, it makes the truck a safer piece of equipment, which means it is safer for the driver and safer for the others who share the road."

"We embrace all of the technology options for tractor trailers because of the safety aspect," Voie stated.

Automation and other increased technology, she added, helps attract more women to the trucking industry by helping reduce the need for physical strength or endurance.

"Since women are typically smaller in stature and often have less upper body strength, removing any heavy lifting or cranking helps us attract and keep female drivers, as well as male drivers who are becoming an aging demographic," she said.

"As much as our female drivers will insist they can learn to shift as well as men, the transmission automation takes away some of the hesitancy that women and men might have in learning how to shift and clutch in a tractor trailer," Voie added.

"Automated transmissions also give more opportunities to take the focus outside of the truck," she said, "and to watch the highway."

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