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JUST AROUND THE BEND Time to get ready for autonomous, self-driving trucks

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PHOTO/STEVE JURVETSON
In 2016, Uber used an autonomous truck, similar to this one that it also owns, to make what published reports say was the first delivery by an autonomous vehicle – 50,000 beers.
PHOTO/STEVE JURVETSON In 2016, Uber used an autonomous truck, similar to this one that it also owns, to make what published reports say was the first delivery by an autonomous vehicle – 50,000 beers.

Autonomous and self-driving trucks are coming to the Greater Lehigh Valley, and businesses and officials are preparing now for the potential transformation in freight transit.

 

The industry will need fewer drivers, truck companies will require new and different skills by other employees, and experts say roads will be safer.

Those are all the more reasons why those with a stake in the technology’s delivery are now discussing and preparing for it. They are engineers, transportation officials, manufacturers, planners, municipal officials, economists, businesses and organizations public and private that will play a role in shaping how the technology is used.

“Clearly, everybody believes it is at hand, so it’s time to implement them into the system,” said Kamran Afshar, a local economist with the Kamran Afshar Data Analytics Center at DeSales University.

When they arrive is unknown. The consensus among experts and industry data show autonomous trucks, those with a steering wheel and a human driver who can assist as needed, could be here in five years on public roads. Self-driving trucks, those with no steering wheel and fully autonomous, would take longer.

“Hopefully, the larger companies will be doing the right thing by making sure the technology is prime time before making larger deployments,” said Stephen Buckley, northeast regional manager of the planning, environment and traffic practice for WSP, an engineering firm in Philadelphia.

LONG-HAUL DRIVERS IN JEOPARDY

As these vehicles, particularly long-haul trucks, adopt more automation, the role of the truck driver will change, with far-reaching implications for a prominent sector of employment. With the explosive growth in e-commerce and the volume of trucks shipping freight throughout the region, the number of human truck drivers required to operate these vehicles will drop considerably.

In addition, this brings about a reduction in jobs for long-haul truckers.

“The need for the long-haul truck driver will be reduced … because you don’t need as many people,” Afshar said.

“The last couple of years we [Lehigh Valley] had double-digit growth in [employment for] the transportation and warehouse sector. That will drop dramatically.”

FEWER EMPLOYEES

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, employment in the transportation and warehouse sector grew by 15 percent over the last 12 months, and another 12 percent for the 12 months before that.

Employment in the sector will most probably drop significantly simply because of automation, Afshar said. Self-driving trucks and more automated warehouses need a lot fewer human employees to produce the same amount of output, Afshar said.

So while transportation and warehousing sector’s output will continue to grow, it will be done with a lot fewer employees, Afshar said.

Jobs for truck drivers and warehouse workers will be a lot fewer, he added, describing the reduction as significant.

DIFFERENT ROLES

In a fully automated warehouse, employers will not need professional forklift drivers, Afshar said, since those machines drive themselves. Humans in the building will have much simpler jobs.

The long-haul truck driver jobs pay very well, but that part of the industry will be among the first to see driverless vehicles without a human in the cab, he said.

However, the deployment of these trucks also will require different types of jobs for skilled employees, including engineers, legal experts and innovators, Afshar said.

When a truck drives itself, there is still the need for a human driver in the truck, at least for a while, but that person’s expertise and thus pay will be significantly lower since the electronic system does almost all of the heavy lifting.

WHEN THEY ARRIVE

With technology rapidly advancing, there have been tests on roads over the past few years, including several high-profile projects across the nation.

“I think the general consensus is in five years, we will see some deployments,” Buckley said, referring to autonomous trucks.

Afshar said in terms of timing, it could be about five years before people see autonomous trucks on public roads in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

AS FEW AS FIVE YEARS

Most experts say it could take five to 10 years for deployment of autonomous trucks on public roads, though others say it could take 20 years or longer, Buckley added.

Getting to level five technology, where vehicles have no human driver at the wheel as a backup, could take this same amount of time or longer since there is uncertainty over how soon engineers deploy this technology.

Buckley said it is critical for the technology to be fully ready to respond to any type of situation.

CARS FIRST

Experts say self-driving cars will be on the roads sooner than self-driving trucks.

“I think you are going to see increased driver-assist technology on trucks; you will be seeing it in Pennsylvania relatively soon,” said Roger Cohen, senior adviser with the state Department of Transportation, in reference to autonomous trucks.

As the technology is tested and perfected, people will increasingly see these trucks on public roads, but this is still a long adoption process, Cohen said.

FUEL SAVINGS

Driver-assist technologies are being tested.

“They allow the creation of two or three vehicles that can operate closer following distances, and that generates significant savings in fuel costs,” Cohen said. It’s similar to auto racing, when one car tailgates another, reducing drag and boosting mpg.

The process, known as platooning, allows trucks to follow each other, but with a driver in each vehicle who can operate the truck as needed.

These are the first steps toward moving to full deployment of driverless trucks that have no humans in the cab.

COULD ATTRACT WORKERS

However, Cohen said, deployment of that technology is still a long way off.

“I don’t think it’s anytime soon,” he said. “There’s a great deal of testing and improvements to automated driving systems. It’s a very complex task to perfect these systems.”

Cohen said increased automation in trucks would enhance the quality of working conditions for truckers, noting that it’s a tough job with long hours. Automation in trucks could potentially alleviate the truck driver shortage as baby boomers continue to retire, he added.

“I think there’s a very strong motivation to improve the quality of working conditions, so it could actually attract drivers,” Cohen said.

SAFER ROADS SOUGHT

Experts cite safety as a primary benefit of autonomous and self-driving trucks to all who use the roads. They emphasize that thousands of lives annually are lost on the nation’s roads because of human errors by drivers. In 2016, for example, more than 11,000 fatal truck crashes occurred in the U.S.

An engineer who operated the transportation departments for Toronto and Philadelphia, Buckley said engineers designed the technology for autonomous and self-driving trucks to improve safety.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s statistics, the nation had 10,543 total truck occupant fatalities in 2015, a figure that rose to 11,024 in 2016, for light- and heavy-duty trucks.

NOTHING IS FOOLPROOF

Cohen said automation would improve safety.

“The reason that this is of interest for transportation departments is for the potential to very much improve safety on the roadways,” Cohen said. “We are mindful that it is experimental.”

Afshar noted the introduction of self-driving trucks does not mean there will be no accidents.

“There are times when accidents happen,” Afshar said. “There is nothing that works 100 percent of the time.”

The expectation is that these vehicles would be safer than those driven by people, he said. As an example, these trucks would be set to a specific speed and could not go faster unless programmed to do so.

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