Are there warning signs on the horizon that autonomous is coming?

They said autonomous trucks were years away from replacing drivers, but a pair of developments this past month I’m sure put the fear in some naysayers.

Pretty much everyone I talk to in the industry is adamant that drivers will continue to be needed in the trucking industry, and I tend to agree with that sentiment. I don’t see trucks going down the highways throughout North America and navigating metro areas on their own any time soon.

However, the news that Suncor Energy will add to its nine Komatsu ore-hauling driverless trucks, employing a fleet of 150 over the next six years at the company’s oilsands operation in Fort McMurray could be sign that the automation movement might happen sooner rather than later.

I tried to contact Suncor to ask about its decision to go down the autonomous path, but surprising to few I’m sure, I was not successful in my efforts.
Suncor’s use of automated trucks is expected to result in the loss of approximately 400 jobs with the company, and is not limited to drivers.

If you’re thinking that automation in the mining and oilfield sectors has been occurring for some time now and this doesn’t apply to over-the-road, there was another story of late.

San Francisco technology company Embark partnered with Peterbilt to complete a run with a tractor-trailer from Los Angeles, Calif. to Jacksonville, Fla.

The truck was completely autonomous while traveling on the freeway. Drivers were in the cab in the event of an emergency and to take over when using interstate entrance and exit lanes and while within municipalities.

This is pretty much exactly what many believe autonomous will look like when it hits the trucking industry – driverless while on the highway, but always with a human being in the cab.

Besides the argument that the roads would be safer with autonomous vehicles, I’m not sure what else this would bring the industry and its carriers. Companies would still need to pay the “driver” while they are in the cab, and boredom will plague more operators as they sit in the cab staring at their smartphones or out the window. I’m sure Facebook would be happy with the spike in user time.

In addition to these examples, there are countless companies looking to develop autonomous truck technology.

Sure, driving in perfect weather conditions in the Southern U.S. is very different from in the north and in Canada. I get that.

There is a societal acceptance and legislative approval process that needs to happen before 80,000-lb. trucks can careen down the road with no one at the wheel. I get that, too.

And like the issues that hinder electric and alternative fuel technologies, namely a lack of infrastructure and continued improvements in performance for some applications, autonomous faces the same concerns.

But it keeps getting better…and it does so at a rapid pace, which is the point I’m trying to make.

It seems every month or so there is a major announcement from a truck or engine manufacturer, or technology company that inches each effort closer to the finish line.

I certainly can see why industry professionals would push back on autonomous trucks – and I agree. Who would want a computer to take away the jobs of thousands of drivers?

But computers have been taking jobs away – and in some instances, adding – from people for decades now.

Why would the trucking industry be any different?

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A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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  • “… I’m not sure what else this would bring the industry and its carriers.”
    Because you are wrong. No offense of course, but I don’t think you really understand where the future is going with autonomous vehicles. The end game is to get the human being out of the cab altogether.
    In your scenario of having a human in the cab in case something goes wrong, put a little more thought into that. When does any accident happen in slow motion? What could the ride-along-driver actually do more than die in a fiery wreck? Even with today’s limited tech, the truck itself will be well into its own accident avoidance protocol long before the ride-along-driver realizes what is happening. Human nature should tell you that a person sitting there doing nothing will definitely not be paying attention to what’s going on around them, and would react far too late to make a difference. Any actions at this point by the ride-along-driver to mitigate the impending nightmare would only get in the way of the truck’s self preservation mode, and most likely worsen that accident that is in the making.
    Future tech, with all vehicles communicating with each other, and intelligent highways, will relegate the ride-along-driver to little more than excess baggage.
    Look at the state of the industry today. Take a hard look at it. We already do not have enough drivers. The vast majority of those we do have want to be home every night. How do you move an entire economy’s worth of goods on an 8 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule? It’s simple … You don’t.
    Tomorrow’s “truck driver” will show up to the office where he will sit at a computer desk, in front of a bank of computer monitors watching over 4 to 6 autonomous trucks, doing nothing more than monitoring the trucks’ onboard systems, and calling the appropriate people when things go sideways.
    The “new driver” will work his 8 hour shift, and hand the trucks off to the next “new driver” that comes in to take the seat.
    So, the real question is “What will all these industry people do when (not if) autonomous trucks hit the roads in force? “.
    Autonomous will be hard pressed to compete in the final mile delivery. You will need people for that.
    Autonomous will not be able to fuel and maintain itself. You will need people for that.
    Autonomous will not (generally) be able to load and unload itself. You will need people for that.
    There is a place for the current (albeit dwindling) driver force. Just not in the traditional roles we have today.
    Once we have them human out of the truck and not physically driving it, cars will be next, and that is the Holy Grail.

  • Should have proofread that one more time.
    “Once we have them human out of the truck and not physically driving it, cars will be next, and that is the Holy Grail.”
    Should have read;
    Once we have the human out of the truck and not physically driving it, cars will be next, and that is the Holy Grail.