The Future of Fleets in a Post-Driver World
IndustryView | 2014
In the remote iron mines in the desert of Western Australia, a revolution is underway. While such companies as Google, Audi and Ford grab headlines with their driverless cars, industrial machinery titans Caterpillar and Komatsu have deployed some of the first experimental fleets of fully autonomous dump trucks in this barren region.
Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention. Due to the high labor costs and dangers associated with operating a mine in this inhospitable terrain, mining and industrial equipment companies have been looking for ways to cut costs while increasing safety—and human drivers have been on the chopping block. But while the deployment of driverless technology in Western Australia is unique, it's likely to become more commonplace.
That’s largely because the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers: The American Trucking Association estimates there are as many as 35,000 unfilled trucking jobs, and turnover rates are typically high. In a state of relative flux, the trucking industry is quickly adapting by investing in the research and development of driverless technology to deploy in fleets.
Though widespread deployment is still a ways off, the seeds have certainly been planted. To learn more, Software Advice conducted a survey of 385 adults in the United States to see what people think about this technology. We also spoke with industry experts on what the future holds for driverless trucking fleets. Here’s what we found.
Currently, fully autonomous vehicles—such as the ones in the Australian mines—are a long ways off from widespread adoption; the trend in driverless technology is towards having human operators present who only take the wheel when necessary. Still, the trucking industry might face more of a public relations hurdle in deploying driverless technology, as compared to its sleeker, sexier counterparts in the consumer automotive industry. Obviously, the danger that semi-trucks pose to consumer cars on the road is greater by virtue of their sheer size.
“The trucking industry is similar [to], yet very different from, the car market,” says Alberto Broggi, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Parma in Italy, a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a renowned expert in driverless technology.
“Trucks are part of an industry, and they need to move efficiently. A driverless truck will create benefits not just because of the higher comfort [for truck drivers who spend many hours on the road at a time], but also for the lower cost in managing it.”
However, driverless semi-trucks proved to be a frightening prospect for our sample. More than two-thirds of respondents thought driverless semi-trucks would be "less safe" on the road than human-operated vehicles, while 56 percent believed driverless cars would be “less safe.”
These attitudes toward the safety of driverless technology pose quite a problem for truck manufacturers as well as the trucking industry (though not an insurmountable one).
“The only thing [auto manufacturers could do] would be to demonstrate a lower probability of accidents. But this is the usual problem, and it is very difficult to achieve, since an accident is not a frequent event,” says Broggi. As it will take years of widespread use of driverless technology to collect meaningful data on accident rates, it will be some time before manufacturers can use hard evidence to assuage the public’s concerns.
In the meantime, Broggi at least has anecdotal evidence of the technology’s safety: In 2010, he oversaw a team that embarked on an 8,000 mile road trip from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China using driverless cars. The entire trip was accident-free.
When we dug deeper into our data, we noticed an interesting trend. While Fortune reports that driverless cars might be a “boon for working moms,” our findings show that women are disproportionately more wary of the technology than men—especially as far as driverless semi-trucks are concerned.
When it came to the prospect of driverless semi-trucks, the reaction was extreme: 77 percent of women viewed them as “less safe,” compared to 59 percent of men.
Driverless cars, on the other hand, were a somewhat easier pill to swallow. Sixty-five percent of women—compared to 46 percent of men—said they thought driverless cars would be “less safe” than traditional cars.
Why the gender gap? In an influential and widely cited study from 2000, researchers found that men were more likely to accept new technology based on its perceived utility, whereas women were more likely to accept new technology based on its ease of use and on social factors, such as its acceptance by their peers.
This phenomenon might help explain our findings: As driverless technology is a trendy, new development, men might be more likely to accept it because of its perceived usefulness, while women might be more reluctant to accept it because it hasn’t yet gained broad social acceptance.
Beyond the claim to greater safety and the money saved on labor costs, driverless semi-truck technology could bring other benefits. First, the relatively cheaper cost of operating a fleet of driverless semi-trucks could bring the cost of consumer goods down (after the initial cost of deploying the technology is recouped). Second, driverless technology allows semi-trucks to operate more fuel-efficiently, thus reducing environmental impact.
For example, one way driverless semi-trucks can be more fuel-efficient is through “platooning,” in which multiple trucks form a single-file line with each other, all moving at the same speed and pace, thereby reducing the effect that wind resistance has on the trucks behind the pack leader. Further, as driverless vehicles would be able to communicate with each other, they would be able to eliminate stop-and-go traffic between them, which would undoubtedly lead to more efficient fuel consumption.
Finally, we asked respondents how they would feel about sharing the road with driverless semi-trucks in light of the tangible benefits of cheaper goods and lessened environmental impact—but even this had little impact on the majority. Fifty-six percent and 54 percent of respondents would not feel any more comfortable sharing the road with driverless trucks if it meant cheaper consumer goods or reduced emissions, respectively.
Incremental advances in driverless technology, such as assisted parallel parking, lane keeping assist and so on, are now standard in many high-end luxury vehicles. As these features increasingly make their way into mass-market consumer vehicles, the public will likely warm up to the concept of driverless technology. But as fully driverless cars are still a long ways off, the commercial industries currently vying to implement driverless technology, such as trucking and mining, may be where the first battle for the public’s hearts and minds must be won.
“There is a chance that commercial vehicles … [such as] the trucks [and] the taxi fleets will be quicker to adopt it,” says Jeffrey Miller, professor of computer engineering at the University of Southern California, an expert in driverless technology and (with Broggi) a fellow with the IEEE.
Thus, trucking companies could be excused for not yet waging a public relations campaign to win people over on the subject of driverless semi-trucks. After all, their customers aren’t amongst the general public—they’re in big business.
“When you’ve got your decision-makers in the trucking industry—who aren’t typically the drivers—they’re going to say, ‘I can save x amount of dollars if we can cut out this, that or the other.’ So I think the motivation is going to be driven more by finance than by user acceptance,” Miller says.
And driverless trucks are already here. Beyond their niche application in Australia, Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its own driverless truck concept, dubbed the Future Truck 2025. The truck utilizes vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to connect to a network that feeds information, such as the location and speed of other vehicles, into the truck—optimizing every aspect of its journey on the road.
From Software Advice's perspective, as this emergent development in the “Internet of Things” becomes even more of a reality, we will likely see the features and functionalities of transportation management systems evolve to accommodate driverless technology, specifically when it comes to route planning, platooning and fleet optimization. In the software sector, market opportunities abound for both niche and umbrella applications that take advantage of this new technology, regardless of personal perception.
To find the data in this report, Software Advice conducted a seven-day online survey of four questions, and gathered 385 responses from random consumers within the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
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