Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

Escape is impossible. The word “autonomous” is everywhere I look, and if I believed the hype in the mainstream press, I’d think that human control of cars and trucks will soon be a thing of the past.

Yes indeed, some forms of autonomous driving will find their way into trucking before long. Who knows when? Not me, but it won’t be tomorrow for the mainstream freight business.

At the user level, I fear that the whole autonomous phenomenon is poorly understood, and in a conversation over dinner recently, I found that a veteran OEM engineer agrees with me. First off, in only very rare circumstances are we talking about actual full autonomy – that is, with no driver present. It is already happening in mines and in some agricultural applications, though very slowly, and it’s likely to appear in container ports on very proscribed routes fairly soon.

Everywhere else, we’re talking “semi-autonomous,” meaning a driver is in there – or even two as presently required in some jurisdictions. Jobs will not be lost any time soon.

The technology component is relatively easy, but not the social and regulatory sides of it all. That challenge takes “complex” to new heights.

Last-mile deliveries are a different story, and there we already see the start of jobs being lost to drones. But that’s a different kettle of techno-fish.

My engineer friend and I also got to talking about platooning. Both of us registered a little skepticism there too. At best I think we’ll see two-truck platoons in the nearish future – but not as near as I once thought we would. I’m not sure the benefits are sufficiently large to justify the expense and the hassle, though a “confidence report” from the North American Council on Freight Efficiency last year begs to differ.

A two-truck platoon would save about 4% in fuel compared to a pair of rigs running separately, the report says, and payback could be as short as one or two years. Fuel savings come from reduced air turbulence between the two vehicles when they operate 40- to 50-feet apart.

The original vision, as I understood it, suggested that as many as 10 trucks could be platooned, limited only by the strength of the radio signal connecting them. And that vision also suggested that random trucks could join an existing platoon if they “asked” by electronic means and determined that routes were compatible. A commercial connection between trucks was also envisioned, namely that the lead rig – which enjoys a much smaller fuel saving – could be paid by the others.

As things stand now, none of this is practical anywhere except on smooth and easy highways in good weather with a pair of trucks from the same fleet.

The biggest downside, to my mind, is the fate of the poor driver in the second truck. These are not autonomous trucks, remember, so all following trucks will need a driver. How on earth do you keep that poor bugger awake?

One big cloud over all this fancy wizardry is that it’s essentially limited to 80,000-pound vans being hauled down clean highways. Talk to loggers, guys hauling to and from remote mines, people supplying all manner of things in oil fields, and you know what you’ll hear.