Self-employed transport vehicles will soon be thrown onto the roads. What will this mean for the country’s 1.7 million truck drivers?
Trucks that drive themselves on the road for long distances
Why it matters
Technology could help truckers make their routes more efficient, but it could also erode their income and completely destroy their work options.
- Daimler – Daimler
Between five and ten years old
Roman Mugriyev was driving his truck on a two-lane Texas (USA) road when he saw a car traveling in the opposite direction invading his lane. To his right was a deep ditch and to his left, more cars approaching from the opposite lane, so all he could do was honk his horn and brake. Mugriyev recalls:»I listened to the man who taught me how to drive by telling me what he always said was rule number one:’ Don’t hurt anyone.
But it wasn’t going to be like that. The wandering car collided with the front of Mugriyev’s vehicle. He shattered the front axle as Mugriyev struggled to prevent his truck and the crashed car he had now merged into from colliding with anyone else. When they finally stopped, Mugriyev found out that the woman driving the car had died in the collision.
If the driver had been a computer instead of Mugriyev, what had happened? Would I have reacted better or worse than he did?
We will probably find out soon enough, because many companies are testing autonomous trucks. While many technical problems remain unresolved, advocates argue that self-propelled trucks will be safer and less costly. Greg Murphy, who has been a professional truck driver for 40 years, says:»This system often drives better than I do. He now works as a safety driver during Otto’s tests with his own trucks. This San Francisco (USA) company provides trucks with the equipment required to drive themselves.
At first glance, it might seem that the opportunities and challenges presented by self-propelled trucks are the same as those presented by self-propelled cars. But trucks are more than just big cars. To begin with, the economic advantages of self-propelled trucks could be much greater than those of self-propelled cars. Autonomous trucks can coordinate their movements to form platoons over long stretches of road, which would reduce wind resistance and save fuel. And allowing the truck to be driven only part of the time will help truck drivers complete their routes sooner.
But their technological challenges are also greater than those of self-employed cars. Otto and other companies will have to demonstrate that sensors and programming are able to match the situation knowledge of professional truck drivers, whose skills have been developed over years of experience and through specific training. They have managed to fly a warship that is easily destabilised and has the momentum of 25 Honda Accords against confusing road hazards, poor surface conditions and unpredictable car drivers.
More importantly, if self-propelled lorries do deploy massively, they could be even more controversial than self-propelled cars. At a time when politics and economics are already being transformed by the threats posed by automation to employment (see «The implacable pace of automation» (and the future of employment), self-employed trucks will affect a large number of working class workers. There are 1.7 million trucker jobs in the United States alone, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technology is unlikely to replace them all in the near future. But they will almost certainly alter the nature of the work, and not necessarily in ways that will be welcomed by all.
«We’re not going to wait.»
Otto’s headquarters, in the once depressed South of Market area of San Francisco, doesn’t look too much like most of the technology start-ups that have transformed the area. Proudly unaware of the improvement of the neighborhood, it is an old furniture manufacturing warehouse converted into a mechanical workshop, with trucks in various stages of dismantling between toolbenches and computers. «There are no fancy and sophisticated offices here,»says Eric Berdinis, Otto’s young product manager.
Berdinis proudly showcases the latest generation of technology, which is already installed on Volvo trucks. Unlike the bulky, screw-in hardware with which it has been testing for a year, the new versions are more elegantly integrated into the Volvo. The equipment includes four forward-facing video cameras, a radar and an accelerometer box that Berdinis proudly says are «the closest the government can get to missile-guided quality.
One of the key elements of Otto’s technology is its LIDAR system, which uses a pulsed laser to knead precise data about the truck’s environment. Otto buys this system from third parties for around 94,000 euros each. But he’s designing his own version that could cost less than 10,000 euros.
Inside the cabin, there is a custom supercomputer and cooled by liquids the size of a bread basket. Berdinis says this device offers the greatest computational muscle ever achieved in such a small package. It is needed to process the vast amount of sensor data and channel it through the guidance algorithms that adjust braking and steering commands to compensate the weight of the truck load. The last component is a cable system control box that converts computer performance into physical truck control signals. This is done by means of electromechanical actuators mounted on the mechanical steering, acceleration and braking systems. Two large red buttons inside the cockpit, which Otto has dubbed «Big Red Buttons», can cut off all independent driving activity. But even without them, the system is designed to yield to any urgent steering wheel pull or pedal stomp from anyone in the driver’s seat.
Otto was founded in early 2016 by Anthony Levandowski, who had been part of Google’s stand-alone car project; Lior Ron, who led Google Maps; and two other partners. It was only natural to take advantage of Google’s vast experience with its autonomous cars, which have driven more than three million kilometres on the U. S. roads, and have an eye on the four million trucks that exist in the United States alone. Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks and Peterbilt have been working on their own autonomous truck technologies.
If more tests were needed to validate Otto’s work, it turns out that Uber acquired the company for almost 640 million euros last August. That agreement has enabled the approximately 500 Uber engineers working in autonomous driving technologies to access Otto’s systems, explains Berdinis. Levandowski now leads that effort for Uber, who claims to be trying to create a general and largely automated transportation network for both goods and people.
Otto has only seven trucks on the road with its technology, but hopes that more truck owners will accept the equipment for free to test it. Berdinis explains that the company is trying to lower the cost of technology so that it can offer a return of one or two years. This is likely to mean that the price of retrofitting an existing truck could be around 30,000 euros. Berdinis adds:»We hope that the government will one day force us to use this technology, and that truck manufacturers will incorporate it into their vehicles. But the development of new trucks is an eight-year cycle, and we are not going to wait.