Autonomous Trucks, LIDAR, and the Future of Trucking



Are autonomous trucks an answer to the growing truck driver shortages in the U.S.?

Trucks are by far the single most-used mode to move freight around the country, moving 63 percent of the total tonnage in 2015. Nearly 18.1 billion tons of goods worth about $19.2 trillion moved on our nation’s transportation network in 2015, based on current Freight Analysis Framework 4 (FAF4) estimates. On a daily basis, 49 million tons of goods valued at more than $53 billion are shipped throughout the United States on all modes of transportation.[i] The industry is growing rapidly, fueled in part by growing e-commerce, but the number of drivers is not growing along with it. The American Trucking Association estimates that there are at least 48,000 open jobs for drivers in the U.S. with an estimated 174,500 drivers needed by 2024.

Figure 1: A visual image that projects the average daily long-haul truck traffic on the National Highway System in the United States in 2045. (Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Transportation)

 

Driver shortages and necessary safety regulations that limit time behind the wheel make fully autonomous trucks (ATs) that much more attractive. Regulations restrict the number of hours that commercial truck drivers can work. Drivers transporting property cannot drive more than 11 hours before taking ten consecutive hours off. A driver cannot drive after 14 total hours of being “on duty,” regardless of the number of hours driven, and may not work more than 60 hours in 7 consecutive days, or more than 70 hours in 8 consecutive days.[ii] ATs could decrease the time that a trucker spends behind the wheel, thus lengthening freight transport time for a driver, even with a truck that’s only autonomous on highways. It’s possible that in five to 10 years trucks will drive themselves for long stretches on public highways, but the technology for completely autonomous trucks off-highways is far from deployment. Drivers already enjoy, albeit by piecemeal, benefits of autonomy that enhance safety and provide a better return for the trucking business by reducing accidents and increasing fuel efficiency. Levels of autonomy start with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), which might include automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and adaptive cruise control. Such features make the driver’s job simpler and lead to improved safety, especially considering the long hours truckers spend behind the wheel. Making up for driver shortages with fully autonomous trucks seems within reach.

Figure 2: In autonomous mode, the truck driver can take out a tablet or perform other tasks. Daimler Freightliner Inspiration Trucks are approved for autonomous operation on public roads in the state of Nevada. (Source: Daimler.com)

Daimler, Volvo, Peterbilt (in partnership with Embark), and Uber are all working on autonomous trucks (ATs). In August 2016, Uber bought Otto, a company that retrofits trucks for autonomous capabilities, for purportedly $680 million. Uber successfully tested a fully autonomous truck delivery via public highway in Colorado in October 2016. A human driver piloted the truck on and off the highway, keeping it in the right lane. The truck had both a leader car and police escort for a 125-mile highway delivery of Budweiser from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The Uber technology includes video cameras, accelerometers, and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor.

LIDAR: The Eyes of Automotive Autonomy
LIDAR sensors are key to self-driving cars, as they are the real eyes of the system, lending depth perception to the process of decision-making in driving. Late-model LIDAR sensors are about the size of a coffee can. A LIDAR sensor visualizes the world in 360 degrees, bouncing pulsed laser beams off nearby objects all around it to create a 3D map of the real world in real time. LIDAR sends a fixed train of light pulses to a target, with a known time interval between pulses. The pulse train hits an object in its path and returns a portion to the LIDAR. The system can measure the time of flight (ToF) of the pulses with an accurate range and speed. However, LIDAR is not perfect. LIDAR can be susceptible to failures associated with sunlight and nearby LIDAR sensors. The LIDAR industry’s  struggle to keep up with orders is causing  lead times as long as six months. However, more LIDAR startups are coming online with venture capital funding and new ideas on how to conquer present-day challenges, cut costs, and reduce size. Most self-driving vehicles use LIDAR. One exception is Tesla. Tesla’s site states, “All Tesla vehicles produced in our factory, including Model 3, have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”[iii] Tesla owners won’t be able to use the system as fully autonomous without regulatory approval, of course. Tesla does have a driving feature in use called “autopilot” that allows hands-free highway driving. Tesla vehicles may not have LIDAR but use several cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and one radar.

Are Autonomous Trucks Taking Notes from Self-Driving Cars?
The technology for fully autonomous trucks on highways is hitting major milestones as several companies test ATs. Volvo plans to launch self-driving trucks in confined areas with private roads such as mining and shipping ports. Indeed, a more realistic outlook for the near future restricts autonomous vehicles to closed, predictable environments, and for good reason. Unpredictable circumstances challenge all autonomous vehicles with bad weather, faded or non-existent lane markings, construction, debris in the road, and the behavior of other drivers, wildlife, and pedestrians. Even so, predictions for autonomous trucks on public highways are often cited in the media at between three to 10 years away and almost universally cited as being safer than human drivers. The implementation of autonomous trucking is hampered by a lack of clear regulations, growing push-back from truck driving unions that fear job losses, and societal inertia. In that time-frame, with the support of legislation, it is conceivable that autonomous trucking can be limited to the right-hand lane in long stretches of highway, and only in good weather. Road conditions, construction, and debris can be managed to a good extent, but no public highway is ever going to be perfect.

Figure 3: Self-driving trucks as a concept in Logan, a Wolverine movie. The fully autonomous concept trucks have no cab. (Credit: Nick Pugh Studios.)

Google cars have driven millions of miles with few accidents, of which all but one was caused by other cars. The exception occurred when the self-driving Google car hit the side of a bus while merging into city traffic at a fairly low speed. However, trucks take much longer to come to a stop and cannot swerve in a maneuver of avoidance without a real risk of jack-knifing or flipping.  Some accidents cannot be avoided. For example, if a car pulls out in front of a truck and slams on its brakes in a two-lane highway, the truck has the choice of swerving into and hitting on-coming traffic, jack-knifing, or striking the car in front of it, regardless of who or what is driving the truck.

Legislation: Autonomous Cars before Trucks
Self-driving trucks may debut after self-driving cars if legislation is a guide. The recent development of legislation regarding self-driving cars excludes commercial trucks altogether. Reasons for the exclusion include matters of jurisdiction as well as opposition from unions. The proposed legislation refers to Highly Automated Vehicles as HAVs: “On Sept. 6, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed bipartisan HAV legislation, known as the SELF DRIVE Act (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act). That legislation, which has not yet been adopted by the Senate, would amend the definitions contained in Section 30102 of Title 49, United States Code, to include definitions for ‘highly automated vehicle,’ ‘automated driving systems,’ ‘dynamic driving task’ and other definitions relevant to the development and use of autonomous vehicles.” [iv] This is a start, but the exclusion of trucks is telling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 1.7 million trucking jobs in the United States. Truck drivers are concerned about losing their jobs to self-driving trucks. Although there is a shortage of drivers and parking for drivers who must pull over after 11 hours at the wheel, autonomous trucks are rightfully considered a threat to jobs. In reality, full AT technology might be engaged from point-to-point on designated, maintained-for-AT highway routes, where human truckers take over at the endpoints for regional delivery. But unlike robots that can take over tedious tasks that humans do not like doing, many truck drivers like the long-haul aspect of their jobs. Transporting hazardous chemicals, oversize cargo, and other unusual freight will likely always have continuous human involvement.

Evolving from Ridiculous
Technology has a habit of superseding our attempts to contain it. Early vehicles of the late 19th century led to the addition of traffic laws, signs, signals, and lane markings. Attempts to curb technology, even for reasons of safety, seem ludicrous now. Great Britain’s Red Flag Act of 1865 required that any self-propelled vehicle be preceded by a person holding a red flag.

Figure 4: The Red Flag Act of 1865 in Great Britain slowed horseless carriages down to walking speed. (Source: bregsforum.com)

Over 150 years later this seems ridiculous, but has society ever adapted as fast as technology? As technology steadily improves, autonomous trucks will be capable of taking over more driving tasks, perhaps eventually merging onto and off of highways without human intervention. Truck drivers can fight against the fruit of progress, but eventually, time and cost savings will overtake the best of intentions for saving long-haul truck driver’s jobs. The red flag was replaced by traffic rules, lights, and signs, which did not exist before. Jobs were created to implement and maintain an automotive infrastructure. As the truck driver shortage deepens, perhaps a similar infrastructure surrounding ATs will evolve new jobs, shifting the landscape without displacing truck drivers all at once. Technology solves problems, solving one challenge after another to make innovative visions reality. The biggest impediment to self-driving vehicles may very well be social, for which technology has no answers.


Lynnette Reese is Editor-in-Chief, Embedded Intel Solutions and Embedded Systems Engineering, and has been working in various roles as an electrical engineer for over two decades. She is interested in open source software and hardware, the maker movement, and in increasing the number of women working in STEM so she has a greater chance of talking about something other than football at the water cooler.

[i] “Freight Shipments Projected to Continue to Grow.” US Department of Transportation, United States Department of Transportation, 14 Aug. 2017, www.transportation.gov/connections/freight-shipments-projected-continue-grow. Accessed Sept. 30, 2017.

[ii] “Summary of Hours of Service Regulations.” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, United States Department of Transportation, 30 Dec. 2013, www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/hours-service/summary-hours-service-regulations. Accessed Sept. 30, 2017.

[iii] Tesla, Inc, www.tesla.com/models. Accessed Sept. 30, 2017.

[iv] Hamilton, Lawrence, et al. “Self-Driving Trucks Get Closer to Hitting the Road.” Law360 – The Newswire for Business Lawyers, 29 Sept. 2017, www.law360.com/technology/articles/969260/self-driving-trucks-get-closer-to-hitting-the-road 9fgv]. Accessed Sept. 30, 2017.

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