Driverless Trucks? No Longer in Future. They’re on the Road.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Normally, a 120-mile beer delivery run between Fort Collins, Colo., and Colorado Springs wouldn’t attract attention.

Last October, however, such an event grabbed international headlines as a semi that carried 50,000 cans of Budweiser made its way south along Interstate 95. Passengers in vehicles that pulled alongside the rig were astonished – the driver’s cab was empty. No human driver.

What these motorists witnessed was the world’s first commercial delivery that used a self-driving truck – a technological marvel that many view as the future of the long-haul transportation industry.

“It presents a great opportunity and has a lot of potential,” says Tom Fleming, CEO of Girard-based Aim Transportation Solutions. “We serve that brewery, so we make that run to Colorado Springs all the time.”

Aim operates a truck leasing business, an integrated solutions division and a logistics company. Aim also owns some 600 trucks, Fleming says, and directly employs just as many drivers across the country.

One of the greatest challenges his business and nearly all others in the trucking industry face is the difficulty of finding and keeping drivers. “There’s really a shortage of drivers,” Fleming says, “and recruiting new drivers is a challenge, to say the least.”

An analysis by American Trucking Associations published in October 2015 found that the industry in 2014 suffered from a shortage of 38,000 drivers. By the end of 2015, that number was projected to reach 48,000. Should this trend persist, the industry would face a shortage of nearly 175,000 drivers by 2024.

Over the next decade, the study found, the industry would need to hire 890,000 new drivers – or 89,000 a year – to help fill the positions left vacant because of retirements and to keep pace with growth.

A driverless truck could be the very solution that the industry is searching for, especially for long-haul runs. “There could be a huge demand for this. And the technology is here,” Fleming says, observing at how rapidly it’s advanced. “Five years ago, I don’t think we’d be talking about it.”

Fleming says self-driving trucks make more sense for long-haul trips than last-mile deliveries because they would be better used on long stretches of highways that have little stop-and-go traffic. Plus, self-driving trucks pose an advantage to freight companies because they would no longer pay salaries and benefits to drivers and save money on fuel economy and driving time.

“There’s some heavy hitters involved in this,” Fleming says. “It’s really only a matter of when. The only thing I’m concerned about is that new regulations would slow it up.”

Companies such as Uber (which owns the self-driving truck technology Otto), Google and, most recently, Intel, are betting heavily that the autonomous truck market will explode over the next 20 years. The main thrust for now is not to develop entirely new lines of trucks – although that might be a consideration in the future – but to retrofit existing rigs with this automated technology.

In the case of the Colorado run, a driver was positioned in the sleeper cabin to monitor how the truck – a modified Volvo 18-wheeler – behaved. He never once touched the steering wheel or controls during the entire 120-mile stretch of highway.

“There’s a conference in July where Volvo is going to talk about the trucks of tomorrow,” says Jim Finnerty, general sales manager at R&R Trucking, a Volvo and Mack truck dealership in Austintown. “They’re billing it as a way to ‘come be a part of history in the making.’ ”

While Finnerty says he’s unsure just what will be presented at the conference, it’s likely that automated technology will dominate the discussion. “I talked with one customer and he said if they could do this, he’d buy 10,000 of them,” he says as he laughs. “My guess is that there’s going to be a huge demand in the future.”

The state of Ohio doesn’t want to be caught napping as these trends develop. It is preparing to convert major highways across the state into “smart corridors” that can accommodate advanced automation and communication technology.

“Certainly this is where we see technology going. And we want to be at the epicenter of that,” says Matt Bruning, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation. ODOT is preparing U.S. Route 33 to become the state’s first smart corridor, that is, it is installing fiber optic cables and sensors all along the route. The upgrade is part of a $15 million plan to develop cable and sensors along U.S. 33, parts of interstates 90 and 270.

In November, the U.S. 33 corridor tested its first driverless truck – an Otto-equipped 18-wheeler – on a 35-mile trip from Dublin, Ohio, to the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty.

The corridor is perfect for testing because it passes through urban, rural, suburban and small communities and can present data on how these trucks respond in various traffic and temperature levels, Bruning says.

“In the spring, it could be sunny and 70 degrees one day and snow, wind or rain the next,” he says. “You want this technology to work in every condition.”

The test in November had a driver in the cab as a precaution, Bruning says, but the demonstration proved that this technology could revolutionize the industry.

“These trucks know where to go,” he says. “Their GPS systems can track within two centimeters. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This could be a real game-changer in terms of safety.”

Human error is the cause of 94% of all accidents, 41% of those because the driver is distracted, Bruning says, citing statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Self-driving technology would make the roads Ohioans drive on much safer. “These trucks are less likely to collide with another vehicle,” he says.

ODOT is planning to equip some of its trucks with some of this technology, Bruning adds. “Not so much the self-driving, but rather the communication capabilities that can transfer data from one vehicle to another.”

Not only would smart corridors accommodate automated vehicles, they would enable real-time communications between motorists and emergency or maintenance vehicles.

“We think Ohio can be a leader in this technology,” Bruning says. “That’s our goal.”

The same upgrade in technology is planned for the Ohio Turnpike, reports Brian Newbacher, a spokesman for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission.

Initially, 17 radio sensors would be installed between the Boston and Amherst maintenance posts along Interstate 80 – roughly 60 miles – at a cost of about $700,000. “We’re looking to begin sometime in late spring or early summer,” he says, noting that the turnpike has in place 241 miles of fiber-optic cable to build on. “We have the infrastructure to go to the next level.”

Such improvements help pave the way for driverless technology along the Ohio Turnpike, which is working with ODOT and the Ohio Department of Public Safety to implement smart corridor planning, according to recent testimony by Randy Cole, turnpike executive director.

“Within the past month, I was made aware of two independent studies that both projected up to a 90% reduction in highway fatalities through the adoption of these emerging technologies,” Cole told the Ohio General Assembly in February.

Cole also says that accommodating self-driving technology is not an effort to throw drivers out of work, noting that under federal rules, a driver is permitted to drive about 70 hours in eight days, or 2,500 miles per week.

“If the technology can extend their productivity by a couple of hours per day, and they still get credit for miles while they are resting, tomorrow’s drivers can make more money and spend more time at home,” he says. “More importantly, we’ll all be safer because it will virtually eliminate drowsy driving and significantly reduce distracted driving.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.