(DON THOMPSON / iNFOnews.ca)
08/23/2021 – 12:00 p.m.
About two million 18-wheelers in the US move more than 70 percent of the country’s goods – over 12 billion tons – from place to place each year. Canada also relies on truck transport, as around 200,000 truck drivers transport 90 percent of Canadian goods across the country.
My wife and I are no strangers to trucking, driving a 48-foot horse trailer from Vernon to Florida and back every year for ten years … more than 60,000 miles in our own big team.
We saw almost everything you can expect. Drivers of large and small vehicles doing crazy things … getting too close and too slow … snaking as they texted or ate … read a book … and, yes, even slept.
I guess we’ve had 50 or more near misses over the years … at least half of them large derricks. Our truck and horse trailer – fully loaded – weighs about 35,000 pounds … and one mistake – ours or another – does not result in mere fender flexing.
Breakdowns with large rigs are usually catastrophic. That’s one of the reasons we have three pull horns on our Ford … and believe me … they can raise the dead. We swap driving duties – every three hours – the entire journey … about 5,000 kilometers over five days.
Just like professional truck drivers, we check lights, wheels and tires at every diesel and night stop. We do our best to limit mistakes, but we are human … and mistakes happen … sometimes at 110 km / h. We both dozed off … and crossed the center line before switching places.
But there are some changes coming up in trucking … and that horizon is much closer than most of us thought. Autonomous trucking – like a flood – is inevitable. Some tractor units are already on the road … every day … strictly tested for safety and efficiency. It’s not too early to say … Bonnie and I will be passing, or being overtaken by, driverless semi-trailers regularly between Florida and British Columbia in another three or four years.
One of the biggest new players in autonomous trucking is a company called TuSimple, a startup that’s heavily funded with more than $ 14 billion … quite a lot. TuSimple is headquartered in San Diego, but with the majority of its tractor-trailer operations in Arizona and Texas, TuSimple currently offers a level 4 autonomous solution. That is, it can drive and monitor its surroundings, but the automated system only works under certain conditions … with a human driver on board as a backup.
In fact, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers, there are six levels of autonomous driving. Starting with 0, which means no ability to drive yourself at all, the levels rise to level 1, which means that there is a certain amount of driver assistance such as cruise control. Level 2 means the vehicle can steer, accelerate and brake, but a driver still has to be ready to take the wheel. Level 3 and above are fully autonomous, but possible with human override functionality until you reach Level 5, the top of the food chain in autonomous driving that does completely without a human on board.
TuSimple – along with competitors Plus and Embark – anticipates that thousands of driverless trucks will cross the US by 2024. TuSimple now has 50 trucks in use, but has reserved 7,000 trucks until 2024 – mainly from Navistar with a maintenance contract through Ryder Trucks.
So what are the advantages of autonomous trucks? For one thing, the trucks do not have to take into account any restrictions on safe human driving. A recent 951-mile shipment of product from Nogales, AZ, to Oklahoma City, OK took 14 hours and six minutes … 10 hours faster than a human-driven truck. Turning a four-day coast-to-coast cargo shipment into a two-day event … saves time and money.
TuSimple and others are using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve safety by allowing the truck to see up to 1,000 meters ahead. The trucks can locate objects at night – even in bad weather – and by collecting unprecedented amounts of data, virtually all conditions and alternatives can be simulated. The bottom line is that it is safer – around 15 times better than a human driver – and also saves an enormous amount of time and money.
There are approximately 5,000 deaths from trucking accidents every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and TuSimple and other autonomous trucking companies claim their trucks will save thousands of lives. You won’t see TuSimple trucks snaking in the lanes or making dangerous sudden movements … the trucks’ computers – secured and hackproof – roll perfectly … ready for any emergency.
Those who are concerned about truck driver exposure shouldn’t be, according to autonomous driving experts. There is a shortage of drivers … a condition that has existed for years. However, TuSimple and others insist that autonomous driving creates more jobs … from maintenance to logistics. Plus, not all drivers will go away in a single year … but after a decade or more, say the pioneers of the new driverless truck.
Autonomous truck opponents attack claims of safer and more efficient trucking, but TuSimple and its competitors seem to be winning this battle based on – hold it – facts.
Billions of dollars are being invested in this new technology … and you can bet that driverless truck advocates will pose every possible challenge knowing that billions, not billions of dollars are at stake.
So I don’t know when we’ll see our first driverless truck on the Florida-British Columbia interstates … but Bonnie and I welcome it. To be honest, I’m looking forward to seeing one pull into a truck stop for Diesel. And believe me, if the cost of an equipped tractor trailer drops from its current $ 250,000 … well, maybe Bonnie and I will fly back and forth … waiting for our truck full of horses. After all, if we can replace drivers … I’m sure the technology is there to make automatic horse watering and feeding no problem.
– Don Thompson, an American pending Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and Florida. In a career spanning over 40 years, Don has worked as a journalist, speechwriter and CEO of an advertising and PR company. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as he loves fine dinners with great wines.
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