Long-haul trucking with Mr. Roboto

Is automation the answer to a big-rig driver shortage? 

Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration, billed as the world’s first self-driving semi truck, is now undergoing testing on real road conditions in Nevada | Submitted

Depending on how brave your new world is, long-haul trucking in the future is either facing an acute driver shortage or in no need of employing any human behind the wheel.

It’s forecast that at least 26% of today’s roughly 11,800 transport truck drivers in B.C. will retire by 2025, according to statistics compiled by the Asia Pacific Gateway Skills Table. The British Columbia Trucking Sector Labour Market Outlook 2016-2025 rates the chances of hiring truck drivers as mostly “difficult” over the foreseeable future. In northern B.C. alone, drivers will represent 40% of the total number of job openings among the 17 occupations making up the trucking industry.

A similarly dire study from the Canadian Trucking Alliance predicts a shortfall of 33,000 to 48,000 drivers by 2020, depending on the rate of economic growth. The industry is at the precipice of a “demographic cliff,” the study warned.

Louise Yako, president and CEO of the BC Trucking Association (BCTA), says truck drivers in B.C. are aging out of the workforce in large numbers. Long-haul drivers are older than the average Canadian worker, which underlines challenges bringing in new blood, Yako says.

“There’s a demographic issue and there are social trends,” says Yako of the age-related exodus.
“[Unfortunately] we have a natural growth requirement at the same time the worker population is slowly leaving us.”

In the near term, the BCTA is aiming to increase the uptake of young people to rates rivalling those of other industrial sectors. The trucking industry is a laggard, says Yako, because the minimum age to get a commercial Class 1 driver’s licence is 19.

“By 19, many young people have made an occupational choice that has taken them in a different direction,” she says.

In response, BCTA has partnered with Kamloops/Thompson School District 73 to launch a “commercial driver training program.” Students take four courses over one semester to gain a basic understanding of truck operation, safety and driving techniques necessary to get their Class 1. However, Yako says the provincial government has yet to budge on an exemption to allow students to achieve Class 1 at 18.

BCTA has also been working with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to improve working conditions on the road. Late last year, after surveying mostly long-haul truck drivers, the ministry committed to improving existing rest areas, building new facilities, seeking out vendors to provide service stations, shower facilities and other amenities and improving connectivity by offering free Wi-Fi at select rest areas. The province is to spend $9 million over three years.

However, these roadside attractions ignore the elephant standing in the middle of the highway. Although the image of long-haul trucking on a lonesome highway has made for many chapters of the country music songbook, it hasn’t filled many fun pages of family albums.

According to Yako, approximately 96% of long-haul drivers are male – and, odds are, that same percentage represents those who don’t want to be away from their loved ones.

“If you are a long-haul truck driver and are away for lengthy periods of time, it’s really hard to be an active parent and partner,” admits Yako. “We think that lifestyle plays a part in making it difficult to attract people.”

And if humans are closing the door on long-haul trucking as a career choice, enter automation.

Talk of driverless or semi-autonomous trucks has gained momentum, spurring imaginations both inside and outside the industry. Rubber has hit the road in terms of application, too. Rio Tinto is using fully autonomous trucks at its Pilbara mining operations in Western Australia. Closer to home, Suncor Energy is testing fully automated trucks on an isolated part of the company’s oilsands operations north of Fort McMurray.

Outside of controlled mine-site locations, autonomous trucks are now being piloted on roads. Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration, billed as the world’s first self-driving semi-trailer truck, is now undergoing testing on roads in Nevada. Last October, Otto, the self-driving-truck subsidiary of Uber, shipped a load of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs in one of its autonomous truck prototypes.

However, both technologies basically rely on a truck autopilot system, with a human driver still present in the cab. The technology is classified as Level 3 by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – with Level 4 being full automation and no driver. Level 3 means vehicle systems can control all driving tasks under limited conditions, but a driver must be able to assume operations when prompted. Daimler’s Highway Pilot system uses radar sensors and cameras to detect objects and lane markings around the truck and take over steering, braking and accelerating from the driver. If the software determines that it can’t handle upcoming twists and turns, a 20-second countdown to human driving is flashed.

Daimler says its Inspiration prototype can save both fuel and lives – reducing crashes due to driver error and fatigue.

The near-term future of the sector as seen by proponents of semi-autonomous trucks resembles the commercial air transportation industry. A pilot handles takeoff and landing at city airports; autopilot takes over for the distance in between. Backers of new driverless technology envision autonomous driving on dedicated highway lanes, with human drivers taking over at city limits.

Complementing this future is California-based Peloton Technology, which is testing the feasibility of deploying multiple trucks travelling in close formation, led by a single driver in the front vehicle, to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. However, Class 1 railroad companies can claim that one-driver-long-train technology has existed in Canada since before the Last Spike.

Most proponents echo the opinion of Martin Daum, head of Daimler Trucks North America, that the technology will make the driver’s job easier. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek article, Daum hoped to show regulators that trucks equipped with autonomous-driving technology put fewer hard miles on a human driver’s day, so those drivers should be allowed to spend more than 11 hours per day behind the wheel. Lior Ron, Otto co-founder, told Reuters of the potential for a truck to be operated 24 hours a day, every day.

Technology that enslaves rather than emancipates humans? Yako says that would never fly in Canada.

“There are currently hours of service in place that limit the number of hours that drivers can be on duty, even when they are not driving,” says Yako. “Regardless of whether you’re in an autonomous truck or you’re actually doing the driving yourself, it’s tiring to always be alert. I don’t think that anyone would expect anyone to spend more time in the cab.”

Ultimately, new technology is going to have to drive through miles of regulatory red tape before autonomous trucks become commonplace.

“Given the kind of timelines that are currently required to change legislation and policy in this country, it seems to be a really herculean task,” says Yako. “It’s probably going to happen after I retire.”

Ryan Ernst, a senior manager in Deloitte’s strategy and operations practice, speaks on disruptive technologies affecting supply chains. He says Canada is largely taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re years away, I think, just as a short answer,” says Ernst of an autonomous trucking future. “2025 or 2030 is almost a given by most consensus now in terms of how people are predicting. [But] I don’t see anyone pushing for it actively in Canada as an investment the same way that you see it south of the border.”

Technology purists promote the vision of a Level 4 future, eliminating both driver and salary. But Level 4 also may shift liability from the driver to the vehicle manufacturer in the case of a crash or death – a contentious legal consideration, say some industry leaders.

Drivers will remain inside the trucks “for the foreseeable future,” Ron told Reuters. Advanced autopilot technology, allowing fewer drivers to do more, is seemingly the more likely future.

Up until talk of autonomous commercial vehicles, truckers had been largely ignored. It’s been an “uphill battle” for truckers to get the profile they deserve, says Yako. The sad irony is that now that long-haul truckers are in the spotlight, the conversation is about removing or reducing their role.

“The trucking industry typically just gets the job done. There are thousands and thousands of trips made daily without really any fanfare. I don’t know if the public really appreciates that,” says Yako. “I just think we need to do a better job to educate the public about what it is the trucking industry contributes to our way of life.”