Perception, legal hurdles among barriers to autonomous trucks

Dan Murray, vice president of ATRI, speaks during his presentation at the NPTC 2018 conference in Cincinnati. 

ATRI vice president also touches on CSA, HOS, e-commerce and more in wide-ranging keynote address at NPTC conference

While suggesting that Level 5 autonomous commercial trucks running regular routes probably won’t happen in his lifetime, Dan Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), noted several level of concerns as well as some of the benefits of the technology in a wide-ranging keynote address in Cincinnati at the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) conference.

Murray hit on many of the research areas of ATRI, providing plenty of nuggets of information along the way, but it was the few minutes he spent on autonomous technologies that provided plenty of fodder for thought.

“There may be, probably not in my lifetime, a [purpose] for Level 5 automation, maybe hub and spoke [operations],” he said, before offering a few thoughts on how autonomous vehicles could radically change freight movement.

“ELDs now monitor drivers, but they are probably going to be technology monitors [in the future],” he said. “Hours of service needs to change. It’s ridiculous to require a driver to stop for 30 minutes when he can just go into the back.”

Murray noted that autonomous vehicles that rarely have to stop would eliminate the current parking problem, and insurance will have to change, particularly around liability concerns. Most issues, he said, are not technology related, though.

“Public perception is going to be a challenge for us,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow learning curve and with that slow learning curve, legislators are going to be [reluctant to offer approvals], so the Teamsters don’t have anything to worry about.”

Murray was one of the independent observers to the OTTO/Budweiser Colorado autonomous run in 2017 and he cited an example from that of a car that passed the truck and then slowed quickly when the driver looked into the cab and saw no driver.

He also noted another example, though, of the safety potential of autonomous technologies, which utilize artificial intelligence. In this example, a car passed the truck and the truck immediately slowed anticipating that the car would cut in front of it. The car did just that, but the truck had proactively responded based on artificial intelligence gained through beta testing.

“That’s powerful and that’s what we’re going to get if we can get past the legal issues,” Murray said. Bringing up the Uber self-driving car that hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year, he showed an image indicating the woman walked into the street just 30 feet in front of the vehicle. Saying the car’s technology should have recognized that, Murray quickly defended the technology by saying that a car moving at 40 mph, as the Uber car was, requires 60 feet to stop. A woman walking in front of it at 30 feet was going to get hit, regardless of whether it was a human or automation driving the vehicle.

“[Safety] is still going to come down to human behavior outside the vehicle,” Murray noted.

Throughout his speech, Murray noted some of the research areas that ATRI is focused on, such as getting millennials into the driver workforce, CSA and the item response theory (IRT) approach to safety, truck parking and more. Basically, the list of projects correlates to ATRI’s annual Top Industry Issues list, which in 2017 included the driver shortage and truck parking. ATRI is also working on e-commerce impacts, autonomous vehicles, CDL testing and crash data.

“I tell my friends in Washington, DC, that if you are not addressing one of these issues, you’re not going to get the interest of trucking,” he said.

Here’s the entire list:

  1. Driver shortage
  2. Electronic logging device mandate
  3. Hours of service
  4. Truck parking
  5. Driver retention
  6. Compliance, Safety, Accountability
  7. Cumulative economic impacts of regulations
  8. Driver distraction
  9. Infrastructure/congestion/funding
  10. Driver health/wellness

Murray noted that the larger truckload carriers are shedding capacity with about 5% fewer trucks in 2017 than 2016, but that smaller and mid-sized carriers are expanding capacity. That has debunked the myth that the owner-operator is going away.

“By any definition, they are not,” he said. “You see truck registrations up; the spot market is amazing for these guys.”

Murray believes the current environment, particularly the spot market rates, have increased the number of drivers interested in being their own boss.

Murray noted the potential of ATRI’s Younger Driver Assessment tool which seeks to identify traits necessary to become a successful driver. “We know what these scores are [for older drivers] and now we’re trying to look for those same characteristics in younger drivers,” he said, adding that FMCSA is now interested in this methodology as it recognizes the need to attract Millennials into the driving workforce.

“FMCSA has come up with this great idea to groom [and transition] military veterans, but how many 21-year-olds are being honorably discharged? Maybe if they joined the military at 14 or 15,” Murray joked.

ATRI is also continuing to study the parking shortage and has quantified some impacts of the lack of available spaces.

“The primary tool to find truck parking is an app,” Murray related, “which is scary because in 2013, FMCSA passed a rule that says anytime you touch the phone twice, it’s a $2,000 fine.”

Murray said ATRI research has identified that 40% of drivers spend between 31 and 60 minutes a day looking for parking with an average of 56 minutes for all drivers “It’s approximately 10% of a driver’s take home pay,” he said. The survey also found that one-third of drivers park illegally between 3 and 4 times per week.

Related to the CSA safety program, ATRI is now reaching out to states to work on better data collection methods which will be needed if FMCSA moves away from the troubled CSA program to the recommended “item response theory” (IRT) approach.

“I’m terrified by this … because IRT is probably 10 times more data-intensive than CSA and the problem is the data coming from the states, and this is a technical term, is crap,” Murray said. “We need a better system.”

Murray also noted that operations costs continue to rise, particularly costs related to repair and maintenance due in part to increasing costs for trucks and truck parts and the diesel mechanic shortage which is raising labor costs.

Finally, Murray noted the changes taking place in the industry due to e-commerce and predicted that more straight trucks will become part of fleet operations.

“The vast majority of [fleets] in the industry still don’t know how it affects them,” he surmised, noting that trip length is declining but there are more trips taking place and more hub-and-spoke operations.

He also sees more freight moving through personal conveyance, i.e. people delivering goods with their cars. This will impact insurance, Murray said. “Things are going to change dramatically,” he concluded.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.