Brian Fielkow

Driverless trucks: Blinded by the hype

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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 chain.

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. The 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 driving. 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 environment.

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 inadequate. 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. No 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.

Meanwhile, 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.