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The long road to driverless trucks

This article is part of our series on the future of transportationthat explores innovations and challenges that affect the way we move around the world.


In March, a self-driving 18-wheeler spent more than five days at a time shuttling goods between Dallas and Atlanta. Running 24 hours a day, it traveled more than 6,300 miles, made four round trips and delivered eight loads of cargo.

The result of an alliance between Kodiak Roboticsan autonomous start-up, and USXpress, a traditional trucking company, this five-day trip demonstrated the enormous potential of autonomous trucks. A traditional truck, whose lone driver must stop and rest each day, would need more than 10 days to deliver the same load.

But the push also showed that the technology is not yet ready to fulfill its potential. Each day, Kodiak rotated a new team of specialists into the cab of his truck so that someone could take control of the vehicle if something went wrong. These “safety drivers” grabbed the wheel several times.

Tech startups like Kodiak have spent years building and testing autonomous trucks, and companies in the transportation industry are eager to reap the benefits. At a time when the global supply chain struggles to deliver goods as efficiently as businesses and consumers now demand, autonomous trucks could alleviate bottlenecks and lower costs.

Now comes the hardest part of this quest to automate freight delivery: getting these trucks on the road with no one behind the wheel.

Companies like Kodiak know the technology is a long way from the time trucks can drive anywhere on their own. So they are looking for ways to deploy autonomous trucks solely on highways, whose long, uninterrupted stretches are easier to navigate than city streets chock-full of stop-and-go traffic.

“Roads are a more structured environment,” said Alex Rodrigues, chief executive of self-driving truck startup Embark. “You know where each car is supposed to go. They are on rails. They go in the same direction.”

Restricting these trucks to the road also plays to their strengths. “The biggest problems for long-haul truckers are fatigue, distraction and boredom,” Mr. Rodrigues explained one recent afternoon as one of his company’s trucks cruised down a highway in Northern California. “Robots have no problem with any of that.”

It’s a good strategy, but even this will take years of further development.

Part of the challenge is technical. While self-driving trucks can handle most of what happens on a highway — merging into traffic from an on-ramp, changing lanes, slowing cars stopped on the shoulder — companies are still working to ensure that can respond to less common situations, such as a sudden three-car crash.

As he continued down the highway, Rodrigues said his company has yet to perfect what he calls evasive maneuvers. “If there’s an accident on the road right in front of the vehicle,” he explained, “it has to stop itself quickly.” For this and other reasons, most companies don’t plan to remove safety drivers from their trucks until at least 2024. In many states, they’ll need explicit approval from regulators to do so.

But implementing these trucks is also a logistical challenge, one that will require significant changes across the trucking industry.

Transporting goods between Dallas and Atlanta, Kodiak’s truck did not make it to either city. He drove to places just off the road where he could unload his cargo and refuel before making the return trip. Traditional trucks then picked up the cargo and drove “the last mile” or final leg of the delivery.

To deploy self-driving trucks on a large scale, companies must first build a network of these “transfer hubs.” With an eye on this future, Kodiak recently entered into a partnership with pilot, a company that operates traditional truck stops across the country. Nowadays, these are places where truckers can shower, rest and have a bite to eat. The hope is that they can also serve as transfer hubs for driverless trucks.

“The industry can’t afford to build this kind of infrastructure from scratch,” said Kodiak CEO Don Burnette. “We have to find ways to work with the existing infrastructure.”

They must also consider the impact on truck drivers: their goal is to make long-haul drivers obsolete, but they will need more drivers for short-haul.

Executives like Mr. Burnette and Mr. Rodrigues believe drivers will move happily from job to job. The turnover rate among long-haul drivers is about 95 percent, which means the average company replaces nearly its entire workforce each year. It is a stressful and monotonous job that keeps people away from home for days on end. If they switch to city driving, they can work fewer hours and stay closer to home.

but a recent study of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan question whether the transition will be as smooth as many hope. Truckers are generally paid per mile. A switch to shorter trips, the study says, could dramatically reduce the number of miles traveled and lower wages.

Certainly, some drivers fear that they won’t be able to earn as much money driving solely in cities. Others are reluctant to give up their time on the road.

“There are a lot of drivers like me,” said Cannon Bryan, a 28-year-old long-haul trucker from Texas. “I was not born in the city. I didn’t grow up in the city. I hate driving in the city. I enjoy picking up a load in Dallas and driving to Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

Building and deploying autonomous trucks is far from easy. And it is enormously expensive, in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. YourSimple, a self-driving trucking company, has faced concerns that the technology is unsafe after federal regulators revealed that one of its trucks had been involved in an accident. Aurora, a self-driving technology company with a particularly impressive pedigree, is facing challenging market conditions and has raised the possibility of a sale to big names like Apple or Microsoft, according to a Bloomberg news report.

Whether these companies can actually get drivers out of their vehicles raises new questions. How will driverless trucks handle roadside inspections? How will they install the reflective triangles that warn other motorists when a truck has approached the shoulder? How will they deal with flat tires and repairs?

Eventually, the industry will also adopt electric trucks powered by batteries instead of fossil fuels, and this will raise even more questions for autonomous trucks. Where and how will the batteries be recharged? Won’t this prevent self-driving trucks from running 24 hours a day, as the industry has promised?

“There are so many issues that are actually much more complex than they appear on paper,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic and political sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in trucks. “Although developers and their partners are putting a lot of effort into thinking about this, many of the questions about what needs to change cannot yet be answered. We are going to have to see what reality is like.”

Some solutions will be technical, others logistical. Startup Embark plans to build a roving workforce of “gatekeepers” who will locate trucks when things go wrong and call in any necessary repairs.

The good news for the labor market is that this technology will create jobs even if it eliminates them. And while experts say that ultimately more jobs will be lost than won, it won’t happen any time soon. Long-haul truckers will have years to prepare for a new life. Any release will be gradual.

“Just when you think this technology is almost here,” said Tom Schmitt, CEO of Forward Air, a trucking company that has just started a trial with Kodiak’s self-driving trucks, “it’s still five years away.”

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