By D.J. Hoff
D.J. Hoff is a Systems Specialist/Autonomous Truck Operator at Locomation and has driven trucks for 25 years.
In recognition of National Truck Driver Appreciation Week (Sept 12-18), I want to address my fellow drivers curious about what the future of autonomous trucking means for them.
I have driven trucks for over two decades and have over 1.2 million accident-free miles in over-the-road and local operations. I’ve been a safety driver and driver performance coach for more than 7 years, the last two with Locomation.
Locomation is a Pittsburgh-based company founded in 2018 by a team of the world’s foremost experts on autonomous vehicles, robotics, and artificial intelligence as well as trucking industry leaders with deep knowledge and experience in every aspect of the trucking business.
Trucks transport more than 70% of the nation’s freight. E-commerce has sharply increased the need for freight trucking services. Demand is expected to grow 36% between 2020 and 2031. Yet, at a time when demand has never been stronger, persistent driver shortages create capacity constraints that force carriers to turn down orders. The numbers indicate that we need about 60,000 more drivers to service the demand today.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average trucker today is 55 years old. He generally chooses trucking later in his career. And as any driver will tell you, long-haul trucking in particular is grueling and takes a toll on drivers and families. Fewer young people today are choosing truck driving as a career.
I came to work at Locomation because they were doing things better than the other autonomous truck technology companies. Locomation believes that solo driverless autonomous trucks are years away. The approach we’re taking, with four distinct phases of development that start with humans in the cab, is the safest and most realistic path towards fully autonomous vehicles. There are many problems to solve in autonomous trucks before they are solo driverless. With our human-guided autonomy approach, we’re ready to deploy in the near term.
Today, we are developing our first product called Autonomous Relay Convoy™, ARC for short. Locomation is building an end-to-end system to enable shippers and carriers to engineer a safe and profitable deployment of autonomous trucks in their supply chains. With the ARC model, one driver leads the convoy while the driver in the follower truck is resting in their sleeper berth and the truck is operating in full autonomy mode. The two trucks switch positions to stay in compliance with existing Hours of Service regulations, allowing them to operate 20-22 hours continuously. I feel this is the safest path to full autonomy for the foreseeable future.
The Locomation suite of products — the AV stack, Autonomous Relay Network℠, and Digital Transportation System — is a complete solution for autonomous trucking. We have load planning and route optimization software to assist dispatchers in the coordination of loads to keep our ARC equipped trucks moving at their highest efficiency. Carriers that adopt our solution will see immediate gains in their bottom line and their asset utilization. Right now trucks sit idle on average 12 hours a day. Any amount we can reduce that will help carriers become more profitable and allow ARC drivers to increase their earning potential, while getting home more frequently.
I genuinely believe Locomation’s approach to human-guided autonomy is going to help drivers by improving their quality of life and making it easier for them to earn more. The fact is, Locomation enables fleets and drivers to generate more revenue per tractor per day by operating safely for longer periods with twice the freight and more home time.
Locomation creates a premium truck driving job where the driver is highly skilled to operate a heavy-duty autonomous truck and will be compensated accordingly. I would like to see professional truck drivers striving to maintain their safe driving records so they can become ARC drivers.
When carriers are equipped with ARC systems, they will gain operating efficiencies in their long haul section and have the ability to haul more freight, and will allow drivers to get home more frequently, reducing turnover and improving their quality of life.
Autonomous trucks will create higher utilization and more efficiencies in the supply chain, which will help alleviate the driver shortage, reduce emissions, and increase profitability. Like many blue collar workers who have seen innovation help improve safety and pay, my job will change to adapt to new technology and the way freight will flow in an ARC model.
The transition to autonomous trucks isn’t starting today. Only 48% of trucking companies say they’ll buy the tech when it is ready, and 97% of trucking companies operate 20 or fewer trucks. If a magic switch was flipped, the manufacturing capacity was there, and everyone was ready and able to buy an automated truck, it would still take 9 years to turn over the entire long-haul fleet. The bottom line is, if you’re a professional long-haul trucker today, you can expect to retire from that job.