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Meet the pilot-monitor, master of the autonomous truck


Technical innovations will replace many routine driving tasks that truckers perform today.

Truck operators will be younger, equipped with skills not only in driving but also in monitoring diagnostics and telematics systems.

Free time created by autonomous driving will enhance productivity, especially for independents with many non-driving duties.

Like it or not, tractor-trailer operation will continue to migrate to automated control over the next 20 to 30 years.

Automation already has proven capable of replacing basic tasks such as changing speeds, braking and steering. It potentially also will take over more complex tasks such as changing lanes and exiting highways.

Where does that leave drivers? The common concern among truck operators is that they themselves won’t be needed. That refrain, however, likely is ungrounded, according to those who study trucking’s evolving technology.

Drivers’ jobs will become like that of airline pilots, not only watching the vehicle but also closely overseeing a variety of sophisticated systems.

This includes monitoring diagnostics and telematics systems, optimizing routing, communicating with other truck operators to form platoons and handling some dispatch and load-finding responsibilities.

Relieved of the constant duties of steering and maintaining speed in long-haul situations, owner-operators will find time to handle many non-driving duties while en route instead of only during downtime. These would include communications, negotiating loads and other administrative tasks, says Mike Roeth, director of the North American Council on Freight Efficiency.

Such efficiency gains could lead to a better quality of life and a more profitable business, says Fred Andersky of Bendix, a leader in advanced braking and collision avoidance technology.

“An owner-operator has to be a businessman, a technician, a skilled driver, a salesperson – all of those things are still going to be important in the future,” Andersky says. The coming technology changes, he says, will simply help them “be more productive and more relaxed.”

Even as autonomous trucks assume more driving functions, no one is predicting when – if ever – an on-highway truck that’s not part of a platoon would operate without any human control or backup. For that reason, fleets will continue to value drivers with good experience and safety records.

“I don’t see [automation] replacing the person behind the steering wheel in my lifetime,” says David Heller, head of regulatory affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. Instead, truckers will become “efficiency czars” charged with ensuring trucks perform as efficiently as possible, Heller says.

“An owner-operator has to be a businessman, a technician, a skilled driver, a salesperson – all of those things are still going to be important in the future.”
— Fred Andersky, Bendix

Remote diagnostics will help owner-operators avoid downtime and save money on repair costs. “Technology will be able to self-diagnose and tell owner-operators ‘Here’s [the part] I need,’ ” Andersky says.

Continued introduction of so much next-gen truck equipment will contribute to a major demographic shift in the driver pool, Roeth says. Younger tech-savvy operators might replace today’s typical drivers, more than half of whom are older than 45, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

“Technology in general is so important to Millennials,” Roeth says of the generation born during the 15 or 20 years following the early 1980s. “As these trucks become more automated and more technical, I think that generation will be more willing to operate them. These will be cool high-tech trucks. They’ll be sustainable and use a lot less fuel. [Truckers] will be communicating and using social media [while driving]. That generation isn’t into diagnosing [modern technology], but they’re very capable of using it.”

However, Roeth says, operators still will be responsible for a large piece of equipment and the duties that come with it, such as load securement and pre- and post-trip inspections.

Even those tasks, as well as other routine ones, might be subject to automation, says Paul Menig, chief executive officer of Tech-I-M, a technology and management consulting firm.

“I could get out of the truck at the fuel island, say ‘goodbye truck’ – I am now relieved of duty,” Menig says. “The truck would finish fueling, finish getting its diesel exhaust fluid, do its diagnostics check, and then it would go park itself. And I can go get in line for a shower.”

— By James Jaillet

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