Driver’s role in ‘driverless trucks’ explored in GATS panel

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Paul Schlegel of Starsky Robotics, the company’s senior vice president of trucking operations, joined Pronto.ai’s co-founder Ognen Stojanovski in a panel at the Great American Trucking Show with something of a provocative subject at its heart: the driver’s role with the “driverless” trucks of the future. The discussion came nearing the end of a federal comment period on autonomous truck technologies and whether the regulatory environment needed adjustment to account for testing and operation on public roads. That comment period closes August 28.

Moderated by Overdrive Equipment Editor/CCJ Editor Jason Cannon, one of the panel’s central themes was voiced early on by Stojanovski: The reality that, as he put it, “there is no software that has the experience and instincts that a driver has.”

Stojanovski repeated such perspective throughout the talk, a dose of skepticism about the place where the science behind autonomous driving techs is today, and its ability to enable engineered products that truly replace any driver. His company’s CoPilot product is a Level 2 driver-assist technology that combines features like fully adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, auto-braking capability and other techs in a package capable of being retrofit to truck-tractors.

Paul Schlegel, Starsky Robotics, with one of his company’s current three automated-vehicle-capable trucks.Paul Schlegel, Starsky Robotics, with one of his company’s current three automated-vehicle-capable trucks.

Schlegel and Starsky Robotics, meanwhile, have taken a different approach toward autonomous truck development. While the company’s headquarters is in San Francisco, Starsky trucking operations are centered in Dallas, where Starsky operates a 45-truck fleet, with just three units outfitted with the multiple on-vehicle cameras and radar systems that underpin its remote-driver model.

Starsky’s a trucking company, looked at in the simplest terms, with an approach to building its autonomous technology by focusing testing of the three trucks (a fourth is in development) on short lanes with predictable freight. Those three trucks while in testing are operating by not one, but two drivers deployed to each truck.

“When I [first] looked at autonomous,” Shlegel said, “I thought, ‘That’s a long ways off’ – autonomous in a commercial setting coast to coast for all lanes is a long, long, long ways off.”

The focus on short lanes reflects an approach to building technology that centers on what Schlegel believes is achievable today: eliminating as many of the variables on a particular, dedicated lane as possible, allowing a safety driver inside the truck and a remote “tele-ops” driver in an office location with 360-degree views of the road to jointly “identify any problem” en route. That happens, Schlegel added, in tandem with the machine learning portion of the trucks’ technology. “Our approach doesn’t rely solely on machine learning. … We want to be able to operate on repeatable lanes in Texas and Florida,” two states whose rules on unmanned vehicles are permissive to testing this kind of technology. Eventually, Starsky hopes to run freight in partially autonomous vehicles “across the I-10 corridor.”

An outfitted test vehicle in the Starsky small fleet is on display in the New Truck Pavilion at GATS in the Hall D area. Two safety and remote “tele-ops” drivers with company have been on hand to answer attendee questions, too.An outfitted test vehicle in the Starsky small fleet is on display in the New Truck Pavilion at GATS in the Hall D area. Two safety and remote “tele-ops” drivers with company have been on hand to answer attendee questions, too.

The Pronto company’s Level 2 driver-assist retrofit product Stojanovski casts as delivering safety-assist and convenience features that will ultimately increase both safety and comfort for drivers. “We’re waiting for a fundamental science breakthrough on the [artificial intelligence] side,” he said, before attempting levels of autonomous driving that truly take a driver out of the truck. “That’s a basic science issue, not an engineering issue.”

In the meantime, he said, techs like driver-assist packages, varying levels of functionality already being delivered by truck OEMs, will raise the safety bar for driverless, autonomous trucks higher. The same goes for the safety of the drivers operating incremental technology, he believes. Drivers, he said, “can use technology to drive better – we believe a person with our technology will be safer.”

Schlegel emphasized that before any developer let whatever business case for autonomous driving techs dazzle them, proving the technology on a lane “can haul safely and effectively” is fundamental to any big shift in the driver’s role. At once, he said, he feels Starsky is ready to, within “the next couple of years, if we can get the I-10 corridor cleared [in states whose laws aren’t friendly for the testing of unmanned vehicles], our technology will be there to make that business case with freight in just that area.”

The future driver is such a scenario, widely deployed, Schlegel likened to an air-traffic controller punching the clock in a remote office and managing, at first, one automated vehicle, and perhaps more as the technology develops. The work of driving in such a scenario becomes something like telecommuting, of a fashion, to a mobile office rolling down the road.

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