Don’t hold your breath

by Derek Clouthier

BANFF, Alta. — It’s been settled – autonomous trucks will not be on our roadways anytime in the next decade.

That, at least, was the general consensus of a group of panelists examining the future of autonomous and platooning in the industry during the Alberta Motor Transport Association’s (AMTA) Leadership Conference April 29 in Banff, Alta.

“We’re all involved in this, and the question remains, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’ and ‘What are we talking about?’” Stephen Laskowski, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), asked during the discussion. “We’re at such an early stage of this technology that talking about autonomous vehicles really isn’t even on the radar yet because it’s not there.”

Laskowski said OEMs and governments are instead concentrating on the types of technologies being created in an effort to achieve a truly autonomous vehicle, and those advancements are being used today to make drivers’ jobs safer and easier.

“When you look at heavy truck crashes, it’s typically driver-related,” he said. “So what technologies can we put in our trucks that make our drivers better? That is what carriers are working with today.”

But as for seeing autonomous trucks on North American roads, other than in Alberta’s oilfields or a yard somewhere, Laskowski says not to hold your breath.

“Nobody in the public or a politician is going to let an 80,000-lb vehicle down that road with nobody in it right now or for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Cindy Clark, dealer principal for Sterling Western Star Trucks Alberta, agreed, and said the current push for autonomous technology comes from a desire by each OEM to be first across the finish line.

“When you have five players with more money and they have investors, you’re going to try and be the first guy in,” Clark said, adding that the onslaught of new technologies is not because they are being pushed, but rather more readily available to the public, particularly when it comes to cost.

But cost is not on the side of autonomous trucks, Clark said, despite the fact that the technology is there. Clark said Daimler, one of the trucking industry’s biggest players, has relayed that it would not be rolling autonomous vehicles out of its factories in the next 10 years because of the costs associated with such an effort.

“The technology is there, people want to try it, but until we have the structure in place – the policies and the people’s confidence – it might be starting in 10 years,” Clark said. “And once it rolls, it will roll fast.”

Clark believes in order to gain society’s confidence in autonomous technology, there is a need for additional small test tracks, like the one located at the University of Alberta, where trials could take place.

Laury Schmidt, district sales manager for Volvo Trucks of Canada, said customers are driving the push toward autonomous because of one “killer” word – downtime.

“Everybody in this room is haunted by downtime,” Schmidt said. “Information is power. Timely and accurate information is a winner.”

Schmidt questioned the social acceptance of driverless vehicles, particularly trucks, comparing the idea to a commercial airplane with no pilot. He said there are multiple ways the industry could reach the point of an autonomous truck reality, such as economic demands, driver shortages, technology advancements, and customer demands.
Wendy Doyle, executive director for Alberta Transportation’s office of traffic safety, said government must play a balancing act when it comes to not stifling autonomous technology innovation, and admitted that government doesn’t really know what to prepare for.

She said autonomous vehicles will have a huge impact on several government policies, such as driver training, where rules must be in place to continue testing drivers for the necessary skills needed to operate a vehicle on the road.

“Things like distracted driving legislation, impairment, and what type of licence they should have for what type of vehicle,” Doyle said. “When you start examining it, there are obvious implications, such as having a vehicle without a driver in it, and does our legislation allow for that, and then the snowball effect of everything that happens as a result.”
Doyle said in any given year, collisions in Alberta cost between $5-$11 billion, and technology can help minimize that.

“Looking at this technology and how it can reduce social costs of collisions and reduce fatalities and serious injuries, really that’s what our incentives are,” she said, “is to allow for this type of innovation and draw down those serious injuries and fatalities.”

Despite tentativeness when it comes to autonomous vehicles, Schmidt believes platooning technology is strong and right around the corner.

Dan Duckering, president of Duckering’s Transport, agreed, but said it wouldn’t be an easy process.

“That’s going to impact our industry, and for regulators, it’s a huge deal,” Duckering said. “There are a lot of factors at play there.”

In order to invest in platooning or autonomous truck technology, Duckering would need to see the return on investment, and where costs would be saved, such as fuel economy and no need for a driver, because the investment would come with a hefty initial price tag.

This is, however, the age of ever-changing technology, Duckering said, and carriers of the future will be the ones that embrace these new technologies.

Another challenge Laskowski pointed out on the drive toward autonomous is the fact that Canadian companies purchase their trucks from US OEMs, and there is potential for the Canadian government to impose different regulations than are in place south of the border.

But Laskowski emphasized that what the autonomous craze is trying to accomplish in 2017 was not a driverless truck.

“Right now, I would say that what we are trying to achieve is safer piece of equipment,” he said. “A better driver.”

Laskowski feels this effort is vital since a new crop of young, inexperienced drivers will soon have to replace experienced drivers who are looking to retire.

“How can we make our trucks safer knowing that we are going to have to put less experienced people inside the cabs?” he questioned.

Doyle said government legislation of autonomous and platooning vehicles would be a mixture of revamping what is currently in the books and creating new rules of the road, as right now in Alberta, a vehicle cannot travel on a roadway without a human inside.

“It’s going to be a long process in trying to figure out where this technology is going to go with vehicles, how legislation is going to react and probably a lot of permits, exemptions and piloting in the meantime trying to figure out how that is going to look,” Doyle said, “so it won’t be a short policy process, that’s for sure.”

But before that point arrives, innovation must continue and society must be shown it works.

“Create the framework to allow the OEMs to thrive and the carriers to be creative by their own accord,” said Laskowski.

“Even the smallest pieces of technology needs to be accepted before the larger pieces can…they are integrated,” added Clark. “And if you don’t have people who want to take the small pieces to make the big pieces work, then that’s going to be a problem.”

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