Did COVID-19 Accelerate Technology Adoption in Trucking?


Throughout the pandemic, the trucking industry has remained on the top tier of essential workers, with drivers typically on the front lines while others quarantined.

The trouble is, the front lines are often among the most dangerous of positions to be and it’s certainly not a place where social distancing is easy. Drivers often have no choice but to interact with others every day as new shipments are exchanged along the supply chain. Fleets needed a way to keep drivers inside the cab of the truck, and oftentimes technology was the answer.

“Like the cockpit of a plane, the cab of the truck keeps the driver safe from the elements. [One] surprising initiative that has improved driver safety is the ELD mandate and the rise of telematics devices inside the cab,” says Streamline Transportation Technologies Inc. in its article “COVID-19 Revealed How Telematics Keeps Drivers Safer.

“Software integrations that allow for paperwork to be transferred over-the-air means improved operational efficiencies, but it also means a reduction of driver slips, trips, and falls. Less slips, trips, and falls mean decreased driver turn-over and improved insurance rates…not to mention healthy drivers.” Chris Hoyt, FleetPulse product manager at Great Dane, says that COVID-19 helped accelerate the appetite for fleets to look, learn, and plan for in their technology deployment.

“The broader logistic industry did well with a lot of white-collar workers working from home and ordering things online,” Hoyt says. “That demand has continued to push the interest and need for shipping and delivery companies to collect data on their process.”

Advancements in Autonomous Trucking

Autonomous truck prototypes have been on the road for years, but the stresses of the pandemic have helped accelerate their development.

Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology provider Waymo has been testing its technology on commercial trucks in the American southwest since 2017. In an interview with FleetOwner in Cristina Commendatore’s article “Level Autonomous Trucks: Closer Than You Think,” Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo, says autonomous trucks are a “natural evolution” to help with the driver shortage that has become more problematic during the pandemic.

“That shift to driving jobs to more regional or local jobs I think is a natural evolution where autonomous trucks can help narrow the driver shortage, first and foremost, and create a shift where the jobs in need of human drivers are more attractive,” Jatt says. “Hopefully, they will be easier to recruit and retain overall, creating an industry that is a little more resilient and reliable.”

Volvo also recently announced a partnership with self-driving startup Aurora–founded by former executives from Google, Tesla, and Uber–on a new lineup of fully autonomous semi-trucks.

According to Andrew J. Hawkins in his article “Volvo and Aurora Team Up on Fully Autonomous Trucks for North America” for The Verge, Aurora said that its first commercial service will be in trucking, “where the market is largest today, the unit economics are best, and the level of service requirements is most accommodating.”

One vital piece of the autonomous trucking puzzle is correctly integrating telematics between the tractor and trailer to accurately transmit data like component health and status information in real time, says Michael Molitor, Great Dane executive director of business development.

“Autonomous trucks will need to pull data from the trailer in order to know the health status of critical safety components, including but not limited to ABS, electrical, wheel end temperature, cargo weight, brake stroke, doors latched, fifth-wheel connection, and trailer tire inflation,” Molitor says. “Once you take the driver out of the cab, there will need to be a digital source of data from the trailer that feeds the brains of the autonomous technology.”

Another AV technology provider, Kodiak Robotics, started hauling between Dallas and Houston in 2019 using Kenworth trucks equipped with its technology. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Don Burnette, says in Commendatore’s article that he expects the industry will see driverless trucks on the road sooner than people think.

“It’s not going to be this year and maybe not next year, but certainly on some lanes, at some capacity, and at some level of scale, I think by 2025,” Burnette says.

Full-scale adoption, however, is still decades away, he says, adding the shift to Level 4 autonomous trucking will likely be a gradual, symbiotic shift over the course of the next decades. Molitor says one reason for this is that the existing population of trucks will not be retrofit candidates for autonomous driving.

“Level 4 and 5 autonomous trucks require hardware and harnessing to be designed into the truck at the time of build. Most critically, autonomous vehicles require redundant steering systems, redundant braking systems, and redundant powertrain control systems,” Molitor says. “Trailers will follow a similar path with purpose-built architectures that communicate necessary data to the main autonomous processing computer.”

Looking for Drivers on the High Score Table

The pandemic has also encouraged companies in some parts of the world to explore another, more novel way to bridge the gap between today and the autonomous trucks of tomorrow: tapping the skills of gamers.

According to Grace Sharkey’s recent article “Carriers Need Drivers; Are Gamers the Answer,” in Freight Waves, Chinese technology company Huawei in 2020 announced a new 5G smart mining technology that let employees remotely operate unmanned vehicles and machinery.

“With a few monitors and a pair of joysticks, employees found the smart technology to be safer, and it created a more efficient workflow at various job sites,” Sharkey says.

Whether this type of technology will translate to over-the-road trucking in the U.S. is still to be determined, but some driving schools see promise in the concept, at least from a training perspective.

“[Many driving schools] were shut down due to the pandemic. Interestingly, schools have begun using the same simulator technology that is used in [truck simulation video] games,” Sharkey states.

The pandemic has inspired established players and newcomers alike to bring fresh ideas to the trucking landscape. Time will tell what the ultimate human-computer balance will become behind the wheel.

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