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The road is still long before self-driving trucks are OK’d

PHOTO COURTESY OF PENNSYLVANIA MOTOR TRUCK ASSOCIATION Tests are well underway for self-driving trucks, which at times still will have an operator in the cab.

A truck rolls down the highway loaded with goods to be transported long-distance, and there is no one behind the wheel.

Some in logistics and warehousing speculate that autonomous vehicles may take a decade or more to become reality. Others say they see self-driving trucks before then, in the not-too-distant future.

Industry officials in eastern Pennsylvania say driverless trucks are anticipated to reduce labor and operating costs, decrease vehicular accidents caused by human error and assist with the shortage on truck drivers worldwide. Meanwhile, driverless trucks have many obstacles to overcome before they become road-worthy, including safety and regulation issues, the design of computerized technology and overcoming public perception.

“There is a lot written in trade publications, and truck manufacturers are experimenting with what will be the future of self-driving trucks,” said Tom Fiorini, chairman of Westgate Global Logistics in Bethlehem Township. “I personally do not see this happening in the next 10 years. They are OK for long runs, straight driving situations like the turnpike or the interstate.”

NEED MATCHING TECHNOLOGY

Fiorini, whose freight management company works closely with logistics companies, said safety is the biggest factor.

All vehicles should be equipped with the same technology so they can interact with each other. And in order for self-driving trucks to be a mainstream occurrence, there must be other self-driving vehicles on the road.

Fiorini said people have fear and trepidation about autonomous trucks.

“Imagine trucks with no drivers. Can you imagine how people will feel?” said Fiorini, adding someone will sometimes be behind the wheel.

He explained that operators will not be necessary the entire trip, which lowers labor costs.

It is questionable just how significant cost savings will be with self-driving trucks. Operators are needed to perform certain tasks that autonomous vehicles will be unable to do on their own, such as backing up, uncoupling and maneuvering curves in the road.

DECADES AWAY

Bob Dolan is president of the Lehigh Chapter of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Association and a driver and sales representative at XPO Logistics in Fogelsville.

He agreed with Fiorini that self-driving trucks will still have to be manned at times. He said that automated trucks will likely help with operator costs and the price to deliver goods.

“You will still need someone to back up the vehicle,” Dolan said. “We are talking about a 70-foot long vehicle.

“This is something that is decades down the line. Logistics, traffic and computers are factors that must be considered.”

RULES WILL CHANGE

Dolan said rules will be changed and reassessed that pertain to driver safety and regulation of drivers’ hours.

He noted that a truck driver can drive only 11 hours in a 14-hour workday and then must take a 10-hour break before his next shift.

He said he hesitates to make a prediction regarding the adoption of self-driving vehicles and that it is too early to say whether or not the cost savings of autonomous trucks will greatly help the logistics and transportation industry.

In Cumru Township, Alen Beljin, a spokesman for Penske Truck Leasing and Penske Logistics, said the company is knowledgeable about autonomous truck technologies.

“We are in communication with many of our truck suppliers and vendors about future developments,” Beljin said.

ROAD DESIGN CHANGES

Lehigh Valley Planning Commission director of transportation planning George Kinney recently gave a presentation on driverless trucks, their benefits, the cost savings in the transportation field, the highway infrastructure and road design changes that will have to take place to support autonomous driving conditions.

“From our perspective in the Lehigh Valley, we have a good infrastructure,” Kinney said.

He said he found that only 6 percent of communities nationally have considered the impact of driverless vehicles.

UNCOMFORTABLE IDEA

A recent report by the American Transportation Research Institute looked at numerous variables, including safety and regulatory measures, government mandates and training and technology necessary to launch a self-driving vehicle.

“The technology for [autonomous] vehicles is a lot further along than people think,” Kinney said.

“America would have to get used to taking their hands off the wheel. … The idea is uncomfortable for people.”

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