Driverless trucks: Blinded by the hype

Truck driver

The views expressed here are
solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of FreightWaves or
its affiliates.

If the path to autonomous
trucking were a highway, it would be strewn with confusing laws, conflicting
definitions, ignored recommendations, unproven technology and the rush for
profits. Above this mythical highway would hang a pulsing yellow caution light.

I’m a strong proponent of
proven truck technology and have invested in advanced systems to protect our
drivers, the public and freight. But when it comes to driverless vehicles, I
see causes for concern, especially in the areas of infrastructure, training,
governance and technology. What’s more, the self-driving chatter is drowning
out other, more relevant conversations with immediate impact on the supply

Here’s why I advocate hitting
the brakes on the rush to embrace driverless technologies.

Autonomous vehicles operate
in a dangerously unregulated Wild West.

Federal government and state governments have failed to establish adequate
parameters for autonomous vehicles (AVs). Some states have fast-tracked laws
that transform our highways into a test lab and treat the motoring public like
guinea pigs.

In Texas, where my business is
headquartered, S.B. 2205 permits operation of an AV whether a
human is present or not, provided the vehicle complies with state traffic laws,
is insured, has a recording device and is equipped with a compliant, automated
driving system. That means a driverless vehicle can enter any Texas state
roadway without testing or notice.

Equally concerning is that the
provision strips any government agency, including the Department of Public
Safety, of authority over AVs. According to the law, “… a state agency may not
impose a franchise or other regulation related to the operation of an automated
motor vehicle or automated driving system.” On what planet does it make sense
for a state to legislatively prohibit its public safety department from
regulating an activity so clearly within its purview?

The Texas law is a disaster
waiting to happen; legislators who pushed it through must own the consequences.
Unfortunately, most of the public is not aware of this law, nor will they be
until tragedy strikes.

The consequences of lax
regulation are starting to sting. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently
conducted a hearing on a fatal 2018 crash involving a “self-driving” vehicle.
Tesla Model X slammed into a highway divider before being hit by two other
vehicles and exploding. NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt concluded that, “Government
regulators have provided scant oversight” when it comes to semi-autonomous
driving systems. Tesla was also criticized by NTSB for failing to adopt
recommendations for its driver-assistance system.

NTSB sharply criticized the
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for its failure
to develop appropriate AV standards, suggesting that NHTSA has prioritized
profits ahead of safety.

Why the rush to abdicate? Some
officials may be concerned about appearing to be anti-technology, while others
bend to industry pressure over public safety.  Responsible governments
must aggressively support innovation and safety in a balanced and responsible
manner. Addressing today’s reality and anticipating tomorrow’s opportunities
are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

Drivers play a uniquely human role. Developers
of self-driving trucks often fail to appreciate the full role of professional
drivers.  Driving is just the start. Computers don’t help stranded
motorists or check hazardous material compliance. Autonomous driving systems
are not on the front lines in the battle against human trafficking. Digital
technologies don’t check load securement or address the dangers of a load shift
in the event of a sudden hard brake. Notes Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder of
the now defunct Starsky Robotics, “To be honest, I don’t think that a
super-computer can be built that is smarter than a truck driver.”

I’m concerned that those
considering a career as a truck driver will wrongly believe that the advent of
driverless trucks is imminent and will squeeze them out of a job in a few
years. The right technology will bring drivers into the profession, not push
them out.

 We underestimate the complexity of highway
Some proponents envision
that driverless trucks will operate on the highway with a human intercepting
the truck for urban delivery. This vision assumes that highway conditions are
easier to manage than urban roads. In fact, both are subject to inattentive
drivers, changing weather conditions, sudden stops, construction zone hazards
and countless other variables.

If trucks can drive themselves
under “most” conditions, as we are told, what happens the rest of the time?
Imagine getting on an airplane with no pilot in the cockpit. Certainly, the
flying public recognizes that autopilot systems are commonly used. But when
something goes wrong, we want Capt. Sully to take control, apply his keen
judgment and get the aircraft safely on the ground. The same holds true for
trucks — we need a driver in the cab to take control even in the most automated

AVs are not proven safer. The
premise that AVs are safer is unproven. Human drivers have had all the
accidents because they have driven all the miles. Manufacturers tout successful
test runs, yet these are always conducted in controlled environments normally
with safety drivers and/or escorts. I am unaware of any testing that tracks
what happens when a sensor fails, when the truck gets a flat or when a child
darts out in a real-world driving environment.

Our infrastructure is
. Autonomous lanes are essential to the
operation of autonomous trucks. A 2018 Trump administration proposal would use
dollars generated by these lanes to fund overall roadway improvements. But in
an environment of significant infrastructure requirements, it would be a mistake
to permit a massive federal investment in unproven technology to interfere with
funding of critically needed roads and bridges.

We’re driving blind. When
it comes to AVs, definitions (like driverless
vehicles, full self-driving technology and driver-assist technology
) are confusing to the public. Technically, there are five levels of autonomy, with
Level 5 being a fully driverless vehicle.
vehicle on the road today is driverless. All require driver engagement. The
problem is that some drivers are led to believe that their Level 2 vehicle
has Level 5 capability.

manufacturers are introducing new technologies at lightning speed with
insufficient or no training. Without rigorous training protocols,
technology-enabled vehicles will become more dangerous than their low-tech
counterparts. I’ve seen it firsthand — dealers sell new trucks with no training
or certification on how to use new automation technologies. I’ve seen hard
stops automatically triggered when the sensors badly misread road conditions.

Manufacturers should not rush to fault drivers when crashes happen. When
high-consequence products are released into the marketplace without proper
testing, training and certification, manufacturers must be held accountable.

Professional and noncommercial
drivers alike must be retrained as automation takes hold. The phenomenon known
as “automation complacency” is a tremendous safety concern. In the case of the
2018 Tesla incident, the driver was playing a video game at the time of the
crash. In an Uber fatality in Arizona, the AV struck a pedestrian. The Uber
“safety” driver was reportedly not watching the road.

Caution ahead

This truckload of unresolved issues suggests that a sustainable
driverless trucking operation on open roads is far away. But I am confident
that deploying the right systems at the right time will attract a new
generation of tech-minded drivers, help redefine their role and contribute to
safer roads.

For now, however, let’s heed
that pulsing yellow light. If money keeps flowing into autonomous truck
technology, advocates will pursue their driverless dreams. I just hope their
experiments don’t backfire alongside our families on the open road.

Brian Fielkow is CEO of Houston-based Jetco Delivery and executive vice president of Montreal-based The GTI Group. He is co-author of “Leading People Safely; How to Win on the Business Battlefied.” Fielkow received the National Safety Council’s Distinguished Service to Safety Award, the council’s highest-level individual recognition.