It seems it’s almost impossible to pick up a magazine (trucking industry publications, included) or tune into the news without reading a story about the next great breakthrough in autonomous technologies – complete with opinions on when the vehicles will be commonly roaming our highways with no driver in sight.
So many predicted timelines have gone by without a mention – it’s like an Elon Musk prediction, no one really expects the predicted date to be delivered on.
I deplore the word ‘autonomous,’ hence my term driver assisted vehicles. The mass media’s penchant for using the term autonomous – and too many of us in the trucking industry following suit – is not helping us recruit tomorrow’s drivers into today’s trucking industry.
In recent years, this has been a tough industry to get the youth excited about. However, helping portray the belief that we won’t need drivers in five years as these trucks will be driving themselves by then, isn’t exactly you’re A-list recruiting material. We, as an industry, are already suffering through a shortage of talent, and helping pull the trigger of the gun that is shooting us in the foot.
For this reason, we need to start, en-masse, promoting these vehicles for what they are: highly-advanced, finely-tuned, highly-technological vehicles, that when teamed up with a highly-skilled operator, can be the safest and most efficient trucks we have ever seen on the road.
When equipped with systems such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warnings, blind spot detection, anti-rollover, amongst others, they have been proven to reduce accidents, and reduce the severity of the ones they can’t eliminate.
In North America, with our infrastructure the way it is, “AVs” must rely on sensors, radar, GPS and lidar to operate their systems. At this point, these devices have proven extremely unreliable in adverse weather conditions such as snow, ice, fog, and rain. Is this technology improving? Yes. But even according to the manufacturers, these devices are a ways off from being able to operate in full autonomous mode via sensors and GPS.
In order for a vehicle to be truly autonomous, it needs to be connected to an advanced infrastructure through sensors and guides. AV infrastructure is being constructed in certain jurisdictions in small areas for testing purposes. If it proves feasible, in time I can see more of these types of autonomous vehicle operation centers, however even then, I still see people being present for the foreseeable future, mainly for reasons of public perception and liability.
For long-distance travel, is it realistic at this point to develop a coast-to-coast network constructed for autonomous or connected vehicle operations? I can’t see this any time soon. We can’t even get a national standard for such things as highway construction or the paint and reflective material that is used for marking signs and roads. Have you ever driven on an Ontario highway in the rain and tried to figure out what lane you are in?
The lines literally disappear from view, and I personally have asked the province to review the paint they use and come up with a more reflective and visible option.
In more than three years, even that hasn’t been accomplished .
I don’t mean to sound dismissive when it comes to these vehicles. I just think we all need a shot of reality. Do my views mean I think we should forget about this technology? No. Quite the opposite. I believe we will see further adoption in controlled environments such as mining, forestry and oilfield.
I believe we need to make systems such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, and others mentioned earlier, mandatory. These driver assistance technologies have proven their worth.
These tools, coupled with a skilled driver, improve public safety immensely. We should ensure we have regulations that allow further testing of technologies, but also keep public safety in mind. Let’s all embrace technology, but be realistic at the same time. If we use the current state of advancement in our vehicles properly, we can actually use this as a recruiting device for tomorrow’s driver. The role of the driver is always going to be needed, the occupation is just going to change going forward.
The driver of the future may be more in line with that of an airline pilot today, but still needed. This type of technology is what excites today’s youth. Let’s market this properly and change the narrative.