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CPBJ Extra Blog

Over-the-road technology: a help or hindrance?

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My dad was an independent truck driver for the last 18 or so years of his working life.

He was old school: owned his own rig and relied on hand-written directions and a 3 a.m. wake-up alarm to get him into New York City by the time the docks opened for business. (We lived in northeastern Pennsylvania.)

About the only technology he used was a citizens band radio. Occasionally the CB tipped him off to a speed trap or an accident up ahead. Dad bought a computer in retirement, but it mainly served as an electronic dealer for his solitaire games.

My dad was bemused by technological restrictions most drivers abide by nowadays. Computer gadgets in the cab let dispatchers know where the driver is at all times, and that means whether he veers off course or takes the rig to an after-hours club.

Now comes word of a future with driverless trucks. A December paper by the research department of Morgan Stanley estimated that “self-driving” vehicles could save the freight transportation industry $168 billion annually. Analysts predict savings through productivity gains and lower costs for labor, fuel and accidents.

The report concluded that “long-haul freight delivery is one of the most obvious and compelling areas for the application of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving technology.” Morgan Stanley researchers said that the technology “will be adopted far faster in the cargo markets than in passenger markets.”

Think driverless trucks is just a science fiction fantasy centuries into the future? I’m not so sure. It seems neither is the trucking industry.

Con-way Freight was part of a study of connected vehicles sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Likewise, Volvo Trucks joined in a connected-vehicle project in Europe, in which a truck with a human driver led a convoy of electronically connected automobiles; a human driver was present in each but not actively driving.

The Morgan Stanley report concluded that long-haul freight transportation on interstate highways could be adopted within 15 years.

Interestingly, the cost per truck is estimated at $200,000, or significantly more than the current $123,000 cost for a new truck. But the savings would result from fewer employees, plus the ability to run the trucks around the clock.

What do you think? Are driverless trucks that close to reality?

I know my dad would be stunned by the idea.


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