Why self-driving trucks are redundant

by Al Goodhall

With all the reports out of Germany in early July regarding Daimler’s self-driving trucks, I can’t help but throw in my own two cents on this topic as a full-time driver.

We all know that the majority of collisions on our roads are caused by driver error. Automation can eliminate fatigued driving, distracted driving, speeding, and other bad driving habits. 

If safety were the sole motivator of vehicle automation we would all be embracing the technology. 

But of course safety is only one factor, albeit an important one. When technology impacts our personal lives and changes how we live, work, and play – then the issue becomes murky.

So what about productivity gains? The first thing that comes to mind is improved fuel mileage. I was surprised that Daimler stated this technology would mean an immediate gain of 5% in fuel mileage. Five per cent? Really? That’s it? 

I have no idea how Daimler calculated this, but research has shown that drivers can impact fuel economy by as much as 20% according to some of the Fleetsmart training material I’ve been exposed to. 

I’ll assume that Daimler’s numbers are gains above their current fuel mileage standards of vehicles driven to specification, something that doesn’t happen all of the time in real-world applications. So I think trucking companies would realize much better gains in fuel economy with automated trucks. 

In this regard, is automation much different than imposing speed limiters on the industry, since a driver would always be behind the wheel? Would it be accepted by current drivers any differently than speed limiters have been?

Consider this quote taken from the TruckNews.com article posted on
July 3, Daimler demonstrates self-driving trucks.

“Autonomous driving will inevitably also change the job profile of truck drivers,” said Dr. Ing. Klaus Ruff. “They will gain time for other activities than just driving the truck: office work, social interaction, relaxation periods. Autonomous driving will make the driver’s working time more varied and less stressful, and help to make long-distance driving more attractive as a profession.”

Okay, so first of all let’s look at the concept of office work while on the road. 

Are we to become driver/dispatcher/load planner? Perhaps we are. There are great efficiencies and costs to be gained here but it’s not what I signed up for, how about you?

Social interaction? I spend 120 hours per week in my truck. I drive it, eat in it and sleep in it. In an automated truck I would still be doing the same. Social interaction would come through electronic media, which gets old in a hurry.

Relaxation periods? Those happen outside the normal working environment. Just because I don’t have to pay attention to the road does not necessarily equate with relaxation time. 

The greatest stresses we face as drivers result from the amount of time we spend on the road – not from how we spend that time on the road.

For me, relaxation and social interaction happen when I am at home away from the everyday responsibilities of the job and not in care and control of my vehicle. That care and control happens whether or not I am on-duty. 

I’m not clear on exactly how my working time will become less stressful if you were to turn over some of my driving responsibilities to an automated truck, replace them with some “office work” but still leave me with 100% of the responsibility for the operation of that truck while it’s rolling down the road. 

After all, I would still be the driver of record in the seat, right?

How would all of this equate to our profession becoming more attractive? I’m not clear on that. Why would someone want to sit in a truck for all of those hours doing the work they could do at home on a tablet unless they were paid an above-average income? They wouldn’t. 

If automation is about efficiency, how is this attractive in any way? It’s not. It’s just a stepping stone to automated driverless trucks. That’s where the real cost savings and improved safety lie. 

The driver is the weak link here and I don’t think we should lose sight of that fact.

This is a contentious opinion, I know, but where else does automation lead in regard to cost control? We only have to look around to see how labour-intensive positions are being made increasingly redundant through technology. This has been going on for decades now and it is not going to abate anytime in the near future.

There is no doubt in my mind that automated trucks that eventually lead to driverless trucks is a good thing for our society on many fronts.

 At the same time it leads to the redundancy of millions of middle-class jobs from the marketplace across North America.

We certainly have no final word on this topic

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