A Glimpse into the Future of Trucking? 3 Takeaways from Riding in a Self-Driving Vehicle
After a handful of high-profile crashes in 2018 involving vehicles in “autonomous mode,” I assumed the hype around autonomous vehicles (AVs) would tamp down significantly.
And, for the most part, it has. Today, most automakers have pushed back their once-aggressive timelines for full (Level 5) driverless vehicles—that can drive themselves anywhere, at any speed, under any conditions—to some time later the next decade.
But, when you look at just one step down to Level 4, where vehicles can operate without a human driver but within particular limitations (such as geofenced areas, weather conditions, and speed), those AVs are much closer to making an impact. In fact, Level 4-capable vehicles are already starting to operate on public roads in a growing number of U.S. cities.
One of those cities is Orlando, where the Beep Autonomous Shuttle program launched with two vehicles in September in a fast-growing master-planned community called Lake Nona.
The all-electric Beep shuttles carry 8-10 passengers and travel on a fixed route at low speeds (15 mph maximum) with a Beep attendant onboard who serves as a “safety operator” to perform any manual driving functions when necessary and ensure passenger safety throughout the ride.
Since the Beep service operates about a mile from my home, I couldn’t resist taking a ride in their driverless shuttle. Here are my three takeaways from that experience, with some thoughts on how self-driving systems might realistically shape the future of trucking.
#1. The public will get used to riding in driverless vehicles, which will increase demand.
When I posted a video on Facebook about the Beep ride, someone asked me what my anxiety level was like, saying that he would most likely be anxious.
And he’s in good company. According to the latest AAA survey on consumer attitudes toward fully self-driving vehicles, 71 percent of U.S. drivers said they would be afraid to ride in AVs. This “fear” number is similar to AAA’s 2018 survey that followed high-profile fatal incidents involving AVs.
As for me, since the vehicle operated at a low speed (under 15 mph), I felt safe, with very little anxiety about it. If it ran at higher speeds, I’d feel differently.
But I will say that it was surreal to watch—and feel—the vehicle maneuver on its own. And it can feel a bit disconcerting when you get in the shuttle and notice something odd: no steering wheel or brake pedals. But then you realize that the attendant can take control of the vehicle at any time with a touch screen and a hard-wired Xbox controller to bring the vehicle to a safe stop, which puts you more at ease.
The critical point here is that, as Level 4 driverless vehicle programs like Beep spread across the country, the public will eventually get acclimated to being driven by the vehicle itself. And this will likely create greater market demand for AVs.
#2. The challenge: Human discretion is difficult to duplicate with software.
The promise of AVs is that they’ll be significantly safer than human-driven vehicles because of their ability to detect and respond to hazardous conditions at a fraction of human reaction time.
And today’s driver-assist safety systems, like automatic braking and lane-keeping assist, offer a taste of the possibilities as the vehicle takes on more functions of the driving process.
But AVs have a long way to go when it comes to fully replicating human discretion to interpret and respond appropriately to other driver’s actions.
For example, how does the AV respond when another vehicle passes and cuts closely in front of it?
When that happens to you as a driver, you quickly assess the situation and tap the brake just enough to allow that person to get in front of you. Sure, you might be irritated. But you have the discretion to determine precisely how hard you need to press the brake to avoid an incident—and make that maneuver as smooth as possible.
As for AVs, they can't quite think like us—at least, not yet.
I rode the Beep shuttle for the two-mile round trip. Overall, the ride was a smooth experience. But there were two times where the vehicle reacted with harsh movements—and both times, it was because of the human-driven vehicles around the AV.
In one case, a truck coming from the other direction got too close to the double yellow line and the shuttle, causing the shuttle to react. In the other situation, a car passed the shuttle from behind. It then swerved back into our lane too close in front of us, which caused the AV to brake hard.
A hard-braking event at low speed is not a big deal. But, at about 60 mph or faster, that could lead to catastrophic consequences.
#3. The future “self-driving” truck will likely be driven by human and machine collaboration.
As the public gets more comfortable riding in the AVs and 5G wireless connectivity is rolled out in the U.S., Beep says that it plans to eventually move the human attendant out of the shuttle.
But that doesn’t mean shuttle passengers will be left alone should there be an issue with the vehicle.
Beep is building a 10,000 square-foot command center in Lake Nona that will allow for human oversight and intervention to ensure passenger safety and security on a remote basis.
This command center model might be the key that unlocks mainstream AV adoption because it offers the best of both worlds—full driverless functionality but with real-time remote access for human takeover when necessary.
But does this mean that the driver will be taken out of the vehicle altogether in the trucking industry?
I don’t see it—at least, not anytime soon.
That’s because, especially in the expedite industry where you might haul high-value and hazardous freight, there are compelling public safety and cargo security reasons to keep skilled human operators on board the truck.
And when you think about it, trains should be the easiest mode of transportation to make fully autonomous. After all, they travel in one direction on rails with very few variables compared to vehicles that operate on public roads. Yet, they still have human engineers on board.
And the passenger aviation industry has used autopilot systems for decades, where the planes can perform most flying and landing functions on their own. Yet, there's minimal discussion about removing human pilots from the cockpit.
So, here’s what I can envision for the trucking industry based on what I’ve seen and learned from talking with industry experts recently.
As trucks get better at driving themselves, this may help ease the industry’s driver shortage problem—but not for the reason you might think. That’s because I can see where advanced self-driving systems could actually offer truckers a better lifestyle and, therefore, make the industry more attractive to a larger pool of prospective highly-skilled human operators.
And "highly-skilled" is a crucial qualifier. Truck operators of the future will likely need to become more like commercial airline pilots today who continuously train, hone and adapt their skills to work effectively—and interactively—with the latest autonomous systems in their "vehicle."