Autonomous vehicles (AVs) that are steadily making inroads into the transportation industry will not replace drivers, but instead augment carrier capabilities.
AVs will allow carriers to take on more freight volume and grow, said Michael Wiesinger, vice-president of commercialization, Kodiak Robotics, during Trimble Insight 2023 Tech Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, Nev.
Matt McLelland, vice-president of sustainability and innovation, Covenant Logistics does not see autonomous trucks replacing any of their drivers. “We tell young drivers, if you take a job with us as a 21-year-old, you can retire with us in the future,” he said.
Weisinger said the autonomous truckmaker’s own fleet is operating with safety drivers but sees a driverless future, providing technology as a solution to carriers. To realize this, a safety kit must be built to prove that Kodiak’s system is safer than the average human driver.
He said humans will still do pre-trip inspections at the starting point, but the driverless truck will traverse the longhaul route, and reach the transfer hub or distribution center where humans will complete the post-trip inspection.
Cost per mile not pinned down
When AV was coming into the picture, carriers were focusing on savings in driver recruitment and retention and Hours of Service benefits, McLelland said. But when you look at tasks that drivers perform like dealing with a breakdown or refuelling the truck, the cost per mile has not been pinned down as many people could be involved instead of just one driver.
Timelines for getting the driver out of the seat are way out, McLelland said. The cost of autonomous trucks has also not been shared. “Instead of spending time trying to figure that out today, we are looking for lanes. At some point, in a year, we will start figuring out the economics,” he added.
Another issue is whether a carrier forms a new AV dispatch department or rolls it into existing jobs. If the AV grouping is independent from the rest of the organization there is a cost associated with it, McLelland noted.
“We won’t solve every issue the transportation sector has, we will solve quite a bit, but not everything.”
Michael Wiesinger, vice-president of commercialization, Kodiak Robotics
And there are concerns about cargo security and breakdowns. Who will take care of these issues if there is no driver around?
Kodiak’s Weisinger said, “These things happen today too. We won’t solve every issue the transportation sector has, we will solve quite a bit, but not everything.”
In case of a cargo theft incident, access to video feeds will allow dispatch of law enforcement to the scene much faster than a driver, he said.
McLelland added that edge cases are worrying and gave an example of water coming in through the windshield during a ride along he was part of. “I thought, what if it was an AV? We can’t obsess too much about the what-if scenarios,” he said.
A tool that does its job well
AVs have a specific application and are designed to do very well in that, said Walter Grigg, leader of industry relations, Torc Robotics. The tool has a constraint in what it does, but it does that job very well, he said.
“No tool in a tool belt does everything. You don’t spread concrete with a Phillips-Head screwdriver, we are building what is effectively a Phillips-Head screwdriver,” Grigg said.
McLelland said he is cautiously optimistic about autonomous technology. The carrier is excited about potential safety gains that are hard to measure. He said the fleet can be augmented and grown without having to make any drastic changes.
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