Panel talks automated trucks and how they could create ‘more desirable’ jobs

EDMONTON, Alta. – There may be a consensus on what still needs to be done for autonomous trucks to thrive, but opinions vary on the timing.

A panel addressing freight transitions during the Conference Board of Canada’s Autonomous 2018 convention in Edmonton June 7 agreed that infrastructure and training would be key factors if and when driverless trucks were to hit the roads, but it was the ‘when’ that had the three-person panel at odds.

Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, said there is a lot of confusion today around autonomous vehicles and how quickly they will become a reality.

Nash said there are plenty of autonomous trucks being used for certain applications, such as mining, but having them on the road with the general public would not be happening any time soon.

“Public perception of trucking is that it’s really not understood,” said Nash, pointing out that there is much more to the industry than moving freight from one point to another.

Nash underscored that with such a variety of freight, the notion of moving everything with driverless trucks is something that needs to be carefully examined and tested.

He also said the term “autonomous” has a negative impact on those looking to get into the industry, and the focus should rather be on “driver assist,” which is where Nash sees the technology at this time.

Marlea Sleeman, president of Sil Industrial Minerals, said she sees autonomous trucks becoming a reality much sooner than many others – though she admitted that she could be dead wrong.

“It’s something that evolves with demand and evolves with technology,” said Sleeman, adding that driverless trucks could start with simple freight, such as sand, gravel, and water.

She said the transition would not be difficult, but the technology does need to improve.

“It’s not going to make sense to go down that road until we see the level of automation needed,” said Sleeman.

Dan Baxter, chief systems engineer of transportation for Stantec, said connectivity would be key to the introduction of autonomous vehicles, as will be what he called “safety infrastructure,” which he said must be in tune with autonomous technology.

“I don’t like the term ‘automation’ that much because it implies it is out there not communicating and thinking for itself,” explained Baxter, who said when it comes to autonomous technology, the focus should be on both safety for the truck and driver, as well as the public.

Cost was a significant factor according to Baxter determining when autonomous technology would become more commonplace, as he said it is extremely expensive at this time.

Despite its high price tag, Baxter said autonomous technology needs work.

“Don’t believe all the advertisements you see,” he said, “it’s not quite ready.”

As for the contention that autonomous trucks would eliminate jobs in the industry, Nash put the brakes on the notion, saying jobs in trucking will evolve over time, and positions will change, not disappear.

“It seems like the driver has nothing to do when it comes to autonomous,” said Nash, “but there’s going to be a lot.”

Baxter said there will be a shift from the baby boomers who were drawn to a career as a driver to today’s generations that look for more technical roles, and the hope is that all this new technology will create jobs that were not there before.

Sleeman agreed, saying that with the driver shortage it’s not about taking jobs away, but transitioning the position to a more technical one, which she said would be more sustainable and enjoyable.

Panel moderator Chris Beringer, director of transportation solutions, industry development branch of economic development and trade for the Alberta government, said he believes the new technology being introduced into the industry would make jobs more attractive and desirable to young workers.

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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