(Left to right) Joanna Buttler of DTNA, Frances Guo of Waymo, Brenda Mejia of Gatik and Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli discussed autonomous truck technology during a conference session.  -  Photo: Vesna Brajkovic

(Left to right) Joanna Buttler of DTNA, Frances Guo of Waymo, Brenda Mejia of Gatik and Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli discussed autonomous truck technology during a conference session.

Photo: Vesna Brajkovic

Autonomous trucks have been making progress toward commercial deployment. How will this technology impact freight transportation, carriers and truck drivers?

Experts from Aurora, Waymo Daimler Trucks North America and Gatik shared their vision of where autonomous technology will take trucking during a panel discussion at the Women In Trucking’s Accelerate Conference and Expo in Dallas.

During the panel discussion, Lia Theodosiou-Pisnelli, vice president of partner programs and operations at Aurora, said that while automation may lead the industry to rethink aspects of the supply chain, Aurora is not looking to be, nor compete with, carriers.

“We're offering the driver as a service, but it's a fundamentally different type of driver than a human,” she said. “Imagine a world where you have drivers who aren’t limited by hours of service. You have drivers that can be there at any time, only limited by the amount of fuel their fuel tanks can hold. What does that world look like?”

For Daimler Trucks North America that world looks like deploying autonomous technology in a hub-to-hub model, focusing on revenue for automation through on-highway driving. On-highway is a segment that, while still complex, is the most manageable use case of automation in trucking, according to Joanna Buttler, director of the autonomous Freightliner Cascadia.

“Imagine an autonomous truck that goes between one depot and the next depot; arriving at a depot that tracks that load, and gets reassigned onto a manual unit and then sent to the final destination,” Buttler said.

The hub model will require new operational processes at those depots (an existing carrier terminal, or a shared transportation hub), but DTNA isn’t looking to provide an urban autonomous truck driving solution just yet.

“We want to ensure that we deploy this first over the highway, and then we will use drivers for delivery,” Buttler said. “It goes back to ensuring people and drivers can be home every day. But I think there's lots of transformative technology, so this will take time to see this as kind of a new mode of transportation.”

Autonomous hubs are going to look very different from what terminals look like today, explains Theodosiou-Pisnelli. They will need to employ people to do in-depth pre-trip vehicle inspections, as well as technicians trained to maintain sensors and cameras.

“The future of jobs in logistics is within this industry,” she said. “And so we have this great opportunity to really be thinking creatively and thoughtfully about how we create those new opportunities in the future, but also how we make sure that there's still room for folks that want to continue what they're doing today [such as short haul operations].”

Where Do Drivers Fit Into Autonomous Trucking?

Autonomous technology companies such as Gatik and Aurora, use CDL drivers with years of experience to either serve as safety drivers, who remain in the cab during autonomous operations, or as drivers who test the benefits of autonomous systems.

“We're learning from them and they're learning from us,” said Brenda Mejia, Gatik operations manager. “It's creating these kind of new fields and these new jobs. It's also an opportunity for them to delve into things like operations and fleet maintenance. We've seen some really positive growth in this space, and we see it just only growing.”

Aurora’s Theodosiou-Pisnelli said that not only do CDL drivers help the company understand how the software is interacting with the vehicle and how to improve the technology to adhere to the rules of the road, but they are also being cross trained within Aurora to make sure that there are opportunities for growth.

“They're not just here for testing the system, but they're actually advisors to us and the technology that we're building,” she said.

Waymo has been conducting customer pilot programs to find gaps in safety and efficiency, and its mission is to figure out how their technology can bridge those gaps, said Frances Guo, product manager for trucking at Waymo.

“We're going to need drivers behind the wheel initially to make sure that we this collect data to convince us all that this system is fully safe,” Waymo’s Guo explains. “This is not going to be an overnight rollout, as much as my engineers would love it to be. This is really a gradual. Every route that we open is going to require a lot of data and that takes time. So really, we see this is very complementary to the current estimated 60,000 driver gap, and that might expand to 160,000 drivers in the next decade. It'll be gradual, and we’ll come in to fill in those gaps.”

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