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NACFE’s Perspective On Autonomous Trucking

Given the far-reaching effects of the automation of goods movement, aka autonomous trucking, NACFE has decided the time is right to start exploring the subject of autonomous trucking as an enabler of the more efficient and sustainable movement of goods.

Our look at this topic is a departure from our more traditional Confidence Reports — which focus on scaling available technology — and Guidance Reports — which focus on getting emerging technologies to the market in a timely manner

When it comes to autonomous trucking, we are in the nascent stages of development and while we anticipate producing a Guidance Report on the subject in the future, for now we are presenting some thought leadership pieces in the hopes of opening up a dialogue on the subject.

NACFE sees the road to autonomous trucking along a continuum which includes technologies that enable automation including advanced drive assistance systems as well as platooning prior to getting to fully autonomous trucks.

SAE Internaional has described levels of automation from 0 to 5, with 0 being no automation and 5 being full automation.

The articles included here touch on a wide range of topics from early adopter test beds for automation, to autonomous truck design, to the need for deep integration and much more.

The Age of Automated Logistics Arises

Autonomous technology in commercial vehicles is coming. Will you be prepared when the first self-driving trucks arrive?

Autonomous trucks are the highest-profile, headline-grabbing, newsworthy component of a much larger, vastly deeper change already permeating its way through global transportation systems — the advent of the Age of Automated Logistics.

The Five Forces Driving Disruption in Trucking Today

As with all industries, change is coming to trucking. To understand why, you need to look at the global forces in play.

There are five forces acting together simultaneously on the trucking industry and they are creating seismic shifts in the way truck fleets operate. It is only a matter of time before a truly transformative technology breakthrough is achieved.

Distribution Yards — An Early Autonomous Test Bed

Volvo, Einride and others are already giving us a glimpse of what an autonomous trucking future may look like.

Distribution centers are quickly become the nerve centers for a fast-evolving global logistics supply chain. If automated logistics system can supercharge their operations while offering an uptick in efficiency, it will only be a matter of time before some, of those systems find a home in fleets across North America.

A Cure for Congestion

I am a bridge embankment. Do not crash into me.

Autonomous vehicles will be one of three new, complementary and integrated technologies that will be deployed in the effort to ease or end congested roadways in the near future, along with Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) systems.

Autonomous Truck Design

Autonomous technology won’t just transform your business. It will utterly revolutionize modern truck designs, as well.

Trucks are simply tools designed to move either human beings or their goods from Point A to Point B in a reasonable amount of comfort and safety. As a result, all vehicles are designed from the get-go with human beings, and their needs, wants and desires, foremost in mind. But what if a human being is taken almost entirely out of the equation? What happens to truck design, then?

Autonomous Building Blocks

The introduction of autonomous truck technology will likely happen in a series of carefully measured, manageable technology mini-leaps [or steps].

The goal behind autonomous truck development is to create a whole new type of deeply integrated and highly adaptable transportation system that virtually never stops rolling and constantly works to find freight and move it in the most economical and efficient manner that multiple integrated technologies working in unison can deliver.

Deep Integration

Autonomous trucks are simply one component series of an all-new, integrated transportation technologies that will transform global logistics.

The goal behind autonomous truck development is to create a whole new type of deeply integrated and highly adaptable transportation system that virtually never stops rolling and constantly works to find freight and move it in the most economical and efficient manner that multiple integrated technologies working in unison can deliver.

The Fleet of the Future

Autonomous commercial vehicles will disrupt virtually every aspect of fleet management in the future and require new ways of thinking and new types of employees with new skill sets.

The fleet of the future will be a different kind of workplace, staffed by a smaller number of employees with highly specialized skill sets. But at the same time, the mission of the fleet will remain just as it has for over a century now — moving freight quickly, efficiency and cost effectively.

Preparing for an Autonomous Future

When autonomous trucks arrive, the learning curve will be steep. But a few easy, preparations today can help make that eventual transition from manned trucks to autonomous ones go a lot smoother.

The future always has belonged to people willing to embrace new technology and leverage the advantages it gives them over their competitors. Autonomous vehicle technology will be no different.

The Human Imperative

For all the promise autonomous trucks hold, the simple fact is they will rely on human help on multiple fronts to succeed.

Vehicle checks, load inspections and service incidents – all essential to commercial trucking – require humans to carry them out. When autonomous trucks become a reality, operational changes may spark new jobs and business opportunities.

What About the Drivers?

An autonomous future doesn’t necessarily mean a future without truck drivers.

Within next 10 years the first fully autonomous trucks will begin real-world fleet operations. And, at that point, driver jobs will begin to be taken over by the robots. That being said, autonomous technology will complement and work with humans and human drivers for many years to come.

Major Money and Mergers Mark a New Phase of Autonomous Truck R&D

Several high-profile mergers and serious investments signal that autonomous truck development is shifting into high gear.

We’re now far enough along in the development cycle for autonomous vehicles that both the OEMs and the tech startup companies have recognized that they both need one another if they’re going to succeed in developing this technology and bringing a viable, productive and safe product to market.

Need For Positive Cash Flow Has Changed

The old rules seem to have been tossed out the window when it comes to autonomous truck development.

Companies that have revolutionary ideas but no sales abound in today’s transportation market segment. Venture capitalists, risk takers, investors, seem to have an endless supply of funds to support these startups on the dream that they will become industry winners.

Three Ways Autonomous Technology is Progressing Outside of Trucking

Autonomous technology continues to make strides outside of trucking.

How autonomous technology is advancing outside of commercial applications gives us plenty of new ways to think about self-driving vehicles, and the many ways this technology will change our lives.

Is AV an Autonomous or Automated Vehicle?

The difference between automated and autonomy may seem subtle, but this subtlety has preoccupied science fiction writers, futurists and forward thinkers for decades.

AV trucks are in the news it seems daily. But are they autonomous or automated? Picking the right one is important.

AVs are ODD

Defining the operation design domain for automated vehicles is crucial.

The industry has to determine how it is going to handle the pairing of an autonomous tractor with a trailer. Ultimately, some method for an autonomous tractor to become an autonomous tractor-trailer combination will be needed.

Autonomous Truckspotting

Seeing your first autonomous truck operating all alone “in the wild” will be a memorable moment.

In the near future, you will see your first autonomous truck driving down the highway by itself. And that moment will likely bring a whole host of thoughts, concerns and emotions to mind.

Autonomous Trucks from the Shippers’ Perspective

Autonomous technology will not only transform how fleets operate, but it also will offer huge efficiency and productivity boosts for shippers as well.

Autonomous technology will clearly offer game-changing efficiency and productivity enhancements for shippers. But, as with any new technology, there will be challenges to contend with, as well.

In the Beginning

Autonomous trucks won’t just appear everywhere at once. Their deployment will be measured, studied and tempered by some very harsh operational realities.

There are some very real operational challenges with autonomous vehicles. Not the least of which is keeping the sensor arrays clean of things like rain, sleet, snow, ice, mud, dirt and road film.

The Insurance Angle

A prime example of just how disruptive autonomous trucks will be to the logistics status quo can be seen by considering how this technology will affect the insurance industry.

There are some very real operational challenges with autonomous vehicles. Not the least of which is keeping the sensor arrays clean of things like rain, sleet, snow, ice, mud, dirt and road film.

Autonomous Trucks and Law Enforcement

Driverless trucks won’t just stop for fuel and maintenance. There will be times they will need to respond to the directions of law enforcement officers and emergency response personnel. But how?

Like every other vehicle on the road, autonomous trucks will be to respond to directions from law enforcement and emergency response personnel. How will that work? There is already a group trying to address how law enforcement interface with autonomous vehicles will work.

Autonomous Partnership to Focus on Uptime

A new strategic partnership between Waymo and Ryder System will focus on an overlooked aspect of autonomous truck operations.

The maintenance side of operating a fleet of autonomous trucks is often overlooked. Fleet maintenance may be on the cusp of a new frontier when it comes to maintaining self-driving trucks.

NACFE’s Three Laws of Autonomous Trucking

The autonomous trucks of the future likely will need some permutation of these laws to guide their decisions in complex daily life and to deal with “edge” scenarios.

There is a need to provide some foundational “laws” for autonomous vehicles to follow when faced with various operational scenarios.

Autonomous Time

Autonomous vehicle technology could transform freight efficiency by an exponential factor.

Human fatigue and speed limits are two major impediments to moving freight as fast as possible. Autonomous trucking addresses both of those.

What’s the Best Powertrain for an Autonomous Truck?

As autonomous trucks come to rely less and less on human drivers, the powertrains that drive them will evolve to reflect new operational realities.

Without human beings in the picture, it seems that power requirements for autonomous trucks will be downgraded significantly over time. Smaller-bore engines may become the preferred option.

Will Supply Chain Stresses Supercharge Autonomous Truck Development?

To date, safety and efficiency have been the main drivers of autonomous truck technology. But new supply chain problems may add extra urgency to those efforts.

The current supply chain crisis has demonstrated that new methods of moving freight in the future are going to be needed. Autonomous technology seems to be one of the most promising options.

A Day at the (Robot) Races

The Indy Autonomous Challenge was a fascinating look at the state of self-driving vehicle technology — but also a reminder about how far there still is to go before autonomous vehicles go to work for the trucking industry.

Teams of university students and OEMs tested autonomous race cars at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We can learn some things from their effort to help move AVs from the track to the highways.

A Driverless Future

Regardless of what you’ve heard, there will be truck drivers for a very long time to come.

As autonomous trucks gain a foothold in the logistics network, truck driving jobs will actually become more valuable and demand higher pay than most driving jobs command today.

Will Autonomous Trucks be Disposable Trucks?

Autonomous trucks may log as many as three times the mileage that today’s long-haul rigs do. Will there be a secondary market for three-year-old trucks with a million miles on them?

When it comes to autonomous trucks, will OEMs opt to build and market them as vehicles with only one life and place emphasis on making them as green as possible during that one life?

We will continue to add thought leadership pieces to this page as new developments occur on the road to autonomous trucking.

In addition to our own work, we will include work from other sources that we have carefully vetted. Watch for these updates soon.

One final note: We know that there are many benefits and consequences of a future that includes autonomous trucking. It is not our intent to be all-inclusive here, but rather we hope to start the discussion and bring to light some of the things we believe need to be talked about.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Contact Mike Roeth, NACFE Executive Director, at mike.roeth@nacfe.org with your concerns, thoughts and ideas on this subject and the role NACFE should play in the autonomous trucking future.