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Special Coverage: Tech firms full speed ahead on autonomous trucking

The future of self-driving commercial cargo trucks and autonomous ocean vessels is fast approaching, but questions remain about how to develop, test and regulate the still-emerging technology.

photo by: chombosan / shutterstock.com

   Several startups and technology companies have put the pedal to the metal in developing autonomous truck technology, leaving the freight transportation industry to wonder when (or if) such developments will ever actually pass regulatory roadblocks and drive into action.
   Advocates of self-driving truck technology argue it will improve safety and fuel efficiency, benefiting trucking carriers as well as drivers sharing the road with commercial trucks and the environment.
   Mountain View, Calif.-based connected and automated vehicle technology provider Peloton says its platooning system, which links vehicles together into tight-knit packs led by a single truck, improves the safety and efficiency of long-haul trucks by using advanced sensing, communications and data.
   Peloton’s cloud-based network operations center (NOC) knows where every truck is, and notifies them for potential platooning opportunities.
   But the NOC currently only recommends platooning when conditions are favorable—including previously approved roads, weather and traffic—and adjusts platooning distance based on those conditions.
   With Peloton’s system, the front truck has a radar sensor that can detect any obstacles within 800 feet down the road. If an obstacle is detected, all the trucks in the platoon will automatically brake simultaneously, as opposed to one after the other as drivers react to the brake lights of the truck directly ahead of them.
   Although a human driver typically takes between one and two seconds to react, Peloton says its technology can do it within one one-hundredth of a second.

Great Potential. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it sees great potential in automated vehicle safety technologies.
   “More than 30,000 people die on our roads every year, and we can tie 94 percent of crashes to human choice,” the NHTSA said in a recent report on automated vehicles.
   With regard to fuel efficiency, Peloton said platooning can lead to double-digit fuel savings by allowing trucks to drive much closer together than is safe with manually operation, which alters the aerodynamics of the trucks, reducing wind resistance and saving fuel.
   Fuel savings are particularly important to carriers, especially as gas prices, which plummeted to historic lows last year due to a global glut of supply, are expected to rise throughout 2017, said Bill Driegert, director of the budding freight division of the now-ubiquitous ride sharing company Uber.
   David P. Yeager, CEO of Oakbrook, Ill.-based multi-modal transportation management company Hub Group, said at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers (MARS) Winter Meeting in January that autonomous vehicles would save the trucking industry money, especially if, for instance, there could be a lead driver with four autonomous vehicles behind it.
   Labor accounts for about 40 percent of the overall trucking industry’s costs,Yeager explained. In addition, the driver base is getting older because millennials are not entering the industry, in part because it has not kept up with other industries in terms of pay.
   “Autonomous vehicle technology is real, folks, and it’s here whether we like it or not,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said at his first state of the industry address in October 2016. “It has the potential to dramatically improve safety and reduce congestion. As an industry, trucking loses $49.6 billion each year due to congestion. This technology has the potential to get trucks moving, reduce fuel burn and emissions, and increase miles driven.”

“As an industry, trucking loses $49.6 billion each year due to congestion. This technology has the potential to get trucks moving, reduce fuel burn and emissions, and increase miles driven.”
– Chris Spear president and CEO, American Trucking Associations


   Chinese tech giant Baidu in April announced it would provide an open platform for its partners in the automotive and autonomous driving industry to develop their own driving systems.
   “Baidu aims to build a collaborative ecosystem, utilizing its strengths in artificial intelligence technology to work together with other companies to promote the development and popularization of autonomous driving technology,” the company said.
   Baidu will open source code and capabilities in obstacle perception, trajectory planning, vehicle control, vehicle operating systems and other functions, along with a complete set of testing tools.
   The company will open its autonomous driving technology for restricted environments in July, share its technology for autonomous cars in simple urban road conditions towards the end of the year, and then gradually introduce fully autonomous driving capabilities on highways and open city roads over the next three years.

Speed Bumps. Despite all the positive feedback on automated trucking, Todd Spencer, a member of the board of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), says challenges remain to implementing the technology, such as a potential increase in cargo theft and cyber security issues.
   It’s a stretch to think that automated vehicle technology can displace very many truck drivers, given the highly diverse nature of freight transportation, which varies based on weather, traffic, driver schedules, and specialized handling for certain types of cargo, Spencer explained in a recent phone interview.
   Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, said in an e-mailed statement that autonomous vehicles could also be too cautious, thereby creating massive traffic jams.
   “In other words, to deal with the liability issue, the software may cause driverless cars to operate ‘like my grandmother,’ for example, waiting forever at intersections,” he said.
   “Who is liable if an accident occurs?” he added.“The carrier? The shipper? The truck manufacturer? The software provider?”
   There are still various technological hurdles to overcome as well, such as performance in bad weather, and a slew of operational problems that stem from mixing autonomous vehicles with traditional drivers, like understanding each other’s intentions at an intersection, he said.
   And in terms of regulating this new technology, Sheffi said, “Governments have shown a lot of interest in accommodating driverless vehicles, but as we are seeing with the introduction of drones, the supporting regulatory process is slow and often unwieldy.”
   On April 24, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) held a public listening session in Atlanta to solicit information on issues relating to the design, development, testing and deployment on highly automated commercial vehicles, i.e. those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving tasks in at least some circumstances.
   The agency is also accepting comments on highly automated commercial vehicles on or before July 17 as part of an overall effort to ensure federal regulations provide appropriate standards of safe operation for all commercial vehicles, including highly automated ones, during each stage of the development process, according to FMCSA Deputy Administrator Daphne Jefferson.
   She said the FMCSA’s goal as regulators is not to impede progress, but to run alongside development as it moves forward and continue to be the voice of safety.

Patchwork Policies. Back in September, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, which it said lays a path for the safe testing and deployment of new automotive technologies.
   “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely,” then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said.
   The policy focuses primarily on highly automated vehicles, but certain portions apply to lower levels of automation as well.
   The state policy section within the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy “presents a clear distinction between federal and state responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles, and suggests recommended policy areas for states to consider with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles,” DOT said.
   “DOT and the federal government are responsible for regulating motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, and states are responsible for regulating the human driver and most other aspects of motor vehicle operation,” the policy said.
   NHTSA responsibilities include setting federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, enforcing compliance with the FMVSS, investigating and managing the recall and remedy of non-compliances and safety-related motor vehicle defects and recalls on a nationwide basis, communicating with and educating the public about motor vehicle safety issues, and issuing guidance for vehicle and equipment manufacturers to follow.
   State responsibilities include licensing (human) drivers and registering motor vehicles in their jurisdictions, enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations, conducting safety inspections, and regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability. These basic areas of responsibility should remain largely the same for highly automated vehicles, according to the DOT policy.
   “The model state policy issued at this point builds on the collective knowledge gathered thus far, and can help to avoid a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations among the 50 states and other U.S. jurisdiction, which could delay the widespread deployment of these potential lifesaving technologies,” the policy said.
   Some states have already begun to pass laws and develop regulations concerning highly automated vehicles, but DOT encouraged states to allow the department alone to regulate highly automated vehicle technology and performance.
   According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of states considering legislation related to autonomous vehicles gradually increases every year.
   As of May 1, 2017, 33 states have introduced legislation in 2017, compared with 20 states in 2016, 16 states in 2015, 12 states in 2014, nine states and the District of Columbia in 2013, and six states in 2012. So far, 13 states and D.C. have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles.

“DOT and the federal government are responsible for regulating motor vehicles and equipment, while states are responsible for regulating the human driver and most other aspects of motor vehicle operation.”
– U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy


   Looking ahead, Sheffi said, “It is likely that driver-assist features such as lane-centering and dynamic cruise control are already on the way. Platooning may appear in five years and E2E automatic operation (with an operator in a cab) a few years later, depending on the speed of regulations.
   “It is unclear when we will witness fully automated dock-to-dock operation. My guess is that it will take over a quarter of a century.”

Beyond The Road. In addition to automated trucks, American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) Chief Technology Officer Howard Fireman says ocean vessels could be next up in the automation game.
   Fireman, who discussed vessel automation at this year’s University of Michigan Captain Ralph R. and Florence Peachman Lecture, said the technology has the potential to reduce costs, decrease the rate of at-sea accidents, provide an attractive work environment for “mariners,” and streamline operations with faster port turnarounds.
   Close to 80 percent of marine accidents are caused by human error, Fireman said.
   He pointed to several examples of groups already working on this technology, including the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, Rolls-Royce, China’s Maritime Safety Administration, Wuhan University of Technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Marine Board.
   There is currently no established worldwide definition of a “smart” ship, but the ABS is going to work on that, Fireman said.
   The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations’ specialized agency responsible for marine safety and emissions, is in the beginning stages of developing regulations and recommendations for unmanned vessel operations, with discussions having started in February.
   There are more than a few stakeholders that will have a role in shaping regulations for automated vessels, including vendors, builders, flag states, class societies, owners, and operators, Fireman explained.
   Testing of unmanned vessels is currently limited to areas with local regulatory approval.
   Fireman said there is still a lot that has to be done to go from smart ships to fully autonomous vessels, with questions remaining regarding the design and testing of ships and how policy makers are going regulate them.
   Even so, the deployment of autonomous technology in ocean vessels, much like in commercial trucks, is rapidly becoming a question of “when,” not “if.”

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