Robot truckers: like it or not, they’re coming
The term “robot” referred to an anthropomorphic machine in the 1950s – the best example being Robbie the Robot, a bulky wheeled contraption with good intentions and bad grammar.
Robots of the 1980s: large industrial welders whirling around in a Japanese car factory. They looked nothing like humans, but rather task-specific machines operating in an environment alien to humans. The heat and blinding light from welding did not affect these robots, which also operate 24/7/365.
Over the decades, robots have become more like the spot welder model than the Robby model. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it well: “Form follows function.
Robots embody our hopes and fears, so we fear that robot work could supplant human efforts in specific professions. The problem is that robots are essentially computer-driven, and computers are glorified adding machines.
How to program autonomous robots? Start by inputting tons of data from sentient beings. The CAPTCHA thumbnail grid, which asks users to select motorcycles or crosswalks, is a classic example. By taking advantage of the thinking power of the human brain, a computer creates a database of images to analyze. Enough data will create robots capable of piloting a vehicle with a (hopefully) acceptable level of success.
This aggregated data slowly refines the capability of stand-alone modules. But don’t expect Robbie the robot to deliver pizza to your doorstep. The scenario is more like an express train line: autonomous drivers travel only on main roads while other (human-driven) vehicles transport within capillary networks.
This evolution will not be without obstacles
“Trucking companies [can] set up transfer stations at either end, where human drivers handle the tricky first leg of the journey, then hitch their cargo to robotic platforms for the tedious middle part,” said an article on news24.com. “Another station at the exit would divert freight to an analog truck for delivery.”
Industry watchers are optimistic about vehicle technology. In January 2022, global product development company U+ released a report titled “Automotive Technology Innovation for 2022 and Beyond”. “One of the key trends in the automotive sector is the growth of Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology…the essential technology for autonomous vehicles as they become a more regular part of the automotive industry. .”
U+ says the global automotive V2X market “grew from $517.31 million in 2020 to $619.42 million in 2021, and analysts expect the market to reach $2.25 billion in 2025.”
What about the claim that robot truckers will take human jobs? So far, few public figures have offered an analysis of the long-term ramifications of self-driving trucks. But New York-based Andrew Yang, a businessman and lawyer best known for his 2020 presidential campaign, is keen to address the changes he sees in the U.S. trucking industry that will result from automation. In 2019, Yang told Axios that he “needed a plan to deal with the loss of those jobs, describing truck driving as the ‘most common job in 29 states’.”
The V2X market is expected to reach $2.25 billion in 2025
Yang used his presidential campaign to warn of the impact automation could have on the economy, saying more auto companies are investing in self-driving vehicle technology, including those from the trucking industry. Given America’s sprawling interstate highway system, that’s millions of truckers and millions more in ancillary industries.
Interest is keen among international bodies. “The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) has adopted an amendment to a UN Regulation on Automated Lane-Keeping Systems (ALKS) which sets out technical requirements for their use in vehicles including trucks, buses and coaches,” says the UNECE. “This milestone marks the first binding international regulation for the introduction of so-called ‘Level 3’ vehicle automation in heavy-duty vehicles on the roads.”
In the United States, standalone products/services are offered under various programs. San Francisco-based Embark Trucks says it “has been building self-driving software exclusively for trucks since day one, allowing us to power the safest and most commercially viable self-driving trucks on the market.” The company describes its Embark Universal Interface as “an interoperable self-contained stack that works on all OEM truck platforms.” Another player is Waymo: a self-driving technology development company and a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
San Diego-based TuSimple scored high with an exercise that began in December 2021. “During this time, TuSimple became the first and only company to autonomously operate heavy-duty trucks on open public roads. with no humans in the vehicle, no remote control, and no human intervention of any kind,” said a press release on the company’s website.
According to the company, “The trucks operated within a defined route and conditions called the Operational Design Domain (ODD) [which] covered an 80-mile (128 km) “hub-to-hub” stretch in Arizona between a rail yard in Tucson and a high-volume distribution center outside of Phoenix [and] includes surface streets and highways with a top speed of 65 mph (104 km/h) and evening launch times from 8:00 p.m.
“Because this was the first race of its kind and to put people at ease,” says TuSimple, their security measures included “a survey vehicle and [an] surveillance vehicle…state and local officials have also asked to follow the self-driving trucks for about half a mile to observe operations. With this crash pad, “TuSimple has completed the trips along the route ‘as is’, without any artificial traffic controls, road closures, tree or foliage trimming, cleaning or clearing of signs, removal debris from the road and without remote control from the truck or other interventions.
down the road
Self-driving trucks will increasingly become part of supply chains despite technological challenges. The pace of adoption is anyone’s guess at this point.
This development will not come without challenges. There may never be a serious accident involving a self-driving truck, but expect the media to jump on the incident with both feet if it does happen. Robbie the Robot was a mix of cool and scary, and we expect the same in the future.
There will also be pushbacks from human truckers – expect blocked highways at a minimum. Governments will want to consider public relations exercises such as retraining.
The road is long but intriguing.
Stefan Hammond is editor of CDOTrends. Good practices, IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing fight against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].
Photo credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff