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VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 2, 2018

Self-driving semis cut costs, eliminate jobs

By Hollie Deese

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Elon Musk presents the Tesla Semi concept vehicle in mid November, highlighting the fact that it can go ) to 60 mph in 5 seconds when not pulling a trailer.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Tesla

Rep. Pat Marsh had never heard of platooning before he was approached by Peloton Technology with claims that the technology it offers could give trucks fuel savings of more than 7 percent overall per year.

And one commercial truck can easily go through more than $70,000 of diesel fuel each year.

“It’s quite a big deal,” Marsh (R-Shelbyville), who also owns a trucking company in Middle Tennessee, says of the potential savings.

Platooning utilizes radar, GPS and Wi-Fi to link up two or more vehicles. Platooned vehicles don’t drive themselves, but are autonomous in the way they communicate with each other.

So, Marsh sponsored a bill that Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law on April 25, 2017, that revises the state’s following distance rule. It also permits the state to come up with rules for platooning and to implement a pilot program.

Trucking companies would use platooning primarily on freeways with the drivers disengaging the systems when exiting the freeway – that is how the legislation is set up.

“It would only be allowed places, on interstates, that could have two trucks driving that closely together,” Marsh points out. “And it would only be in areas approved by the department of safety and the department of transportation under their guidelines.”

Tennessee is now one of four states that have passed legislation providing an exemption for platooning from its FTC law.

How it works

In the commercial trucking industry, once a front truck and rear trucks are linked electronically –platooned – they accelerate and break together. This allows trucks to follow each other at a much closer distance (typically between 50 to 80 feet), taking advantage of aerodynamics to improve fuel efficiency, safety and traffic congestion.

“Tennessee, given its strong automotive manufacturing base and the fact that we are kind of the crossroads of a huge amount of freight that comes off the port of Savannah, coming out of manufacturing that’s further south, the distribution of the automotive in and around Chattanooga that passes through I-75, I-40, it’s sort of the crossroads of the South,” says Rich Davies, director of the sustainable transportation program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Davies adds platooning appeals from a sustainability standpoint, too.

“You can close that gap between the trucks to the point where you have a major increase in the efficiency from an aerodynamic standpoint,” Davies continues. “And so, we think, that if we can get platooning in place with vehicles it will make a pretty significant energy savings impact along these I-75 and I-40 corridors, and also reduce the associated emissions with that.”

Davies points out there’s a lot of varying opinions about how fast all this is going to happen and to what degree. But it will happen.

“We look at platooning and ways that we can save fuel through automation, and this is important to Tennessee,” Davies points out. “By 2050, we’re supposed to increase the freight volumes and the overall energy consumed by 13 percent. And really, we’re hoping that we can offset those increases in fuel consumption by introducing better control systems in autonomous vehicles, and that’s probably one of the biggest drivers.”

In anticipation, the Tesla Company has already unveiled its own all-electric semi, scheduled for rollout in 2019, which the company says will increase safety while reducing the cost of cargo transport. With enhanced Autopilot, the Tesla Semi features automatic emergency braking, automatic lane keeping, lane departure warning and event recording.

Tesla semis can also travel in a convoy, autonomously following a lead truck. And they have already been reserved by Wal-Mart, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch.

Without a trailer, the Tesla Semi achieves 0-60 mph in five seconds, compared to 15 seconds in a comparable diesel truck. It does 0-60 mph in 20 seconds with a full 80,000-pound load, a task that takes a diesel truck nearly 60 seconds. Most notably, it climbs 5 percent grades at a steady 65 mph, whereas a diesel truck maxes out at 45 mph.

Video of truck platooning in action

The Tesla Semi requires no shifting or clutching for smooth acceleration and deceleration, and a new high-speed DC charging solution will add about 400 miles in 30 minutes and can be installed at origin or destination points and along heavily trafficked routes, enabling recharging during loading, unloading and driver breaks.

The first delivery by automated truck has already been made.

In October 2016, an Uber subsidiary called Otto dispatched an automated rig in Colorado with 2,000 cases of Budweiser, from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The driver handled only off-interstate driving.

Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski is being sued by Google, where he had worked on their Waymo self-driving program before leaving to launch Otto. Levandowski sold Otto to Uber for $680 million just a few months before the beer delivery.

As a politician. Marsh says he has no problem helping clear the way for testing the technology in Tennessee. But as the owner of Big G Express trucking in Shelbyville, he is going to wait and let other people test it before he implements it on his 600 trucks that transport general commodities.

“We’re excited about the possibility of self-driving equipment,” Marsh says. “I think it’s still got a lot of bugs in it to be worked out, but the whole industry, long haul trucking, we’re having a tremendously tough time finding good drivers. Finding really any drivers. We’ve got 60 trucks empty today with no drivers.”

Trucking jobs on the line?

Trucking is a notoriously tough job, keeping drivers on the road for hours at a stretch and away from home and family for days at a time.

“They miss their kids’ ball games,” Marsh acknowledges. “They’re fighting congestion and they’re fighting just terrible traffic. They’re fighting receiving people that are blaming the truck drivers. There’s just all kind of different problems.”

Truckers also have to comply with a number of mandated federal rules and regulations, including having to convert from paper logs to electronic logs computerized by GPS in fleets smaller than 50 trucks by December 18, 2017. Companies with more than 50 trucks in their fleet such as Marsh’s already had to be in compliance.

“You cannot drive over your driving limit of 11 hours a day without taking eight hours rest,” Marsh continues. “You can be on duty 14 hours, drive 11, and mandatory eight hours rest. And the computers and the GPS keeps up with all of it so you can’t cheat on it. Which probably means there’ll be even fewer drivers because a lot of the smaller trucking companies are just not going to put up with that. They’ll say they’re going to do it my way, and their way’s not possible anymore.”

Still, Marsh’s biggest issue is finding qualified drivers, and keeping them.

“We pay recruiting bonuses for all of our current drivers, if they bring on another driver they get a bonus. Every guy that comes on gets a recruiting bonus or a sign-on bonus,” he says. “So, we are doing everything we can to attract good, qualified drivers. The work ethic, it’s just not there anymore like it used to be.”

In that sense a move to autonomous semis would help owners like Marsh who can’t keep trucks filled with bodies. Not to mention the salary savings and fuel costs. And while it will be decades before commercial trucking is fully automated, research company McKinsey Global Institute suggests that the industry will be at 85 percent automation by 2027, with nearly 1.5 million jobs gone.

“Self-driving trucks means eliminating jobs,” says Dr. Tim Lynch, president of Psychsoftpc, an artisanal computer company. “The first jobs to go are, of course, the truck drivers. But eliminating them has a cascade effect on other companies and industries. No truck drivers means no folks needing food and fuel along the route which means no more truck stops, diners and fast food restaurants along the highways. So, cooks, waitresses and gas attendants get their jobs eliminated.”

Lynch predicts that all the self-driving trucks will be owned by big corporations with no independent truckers able to afford a more expensive autonomous truck.

“Trucking is going to end up centered around major powers and these major powers are going to have their own infrastructure,” Lynch adds. “They’re going to have their own gas stations. They’re going to have their own mechanics. They’re going to have their own controllers. And the diners on the highway are all going to go away because there won’t be any truckers stopping by.”

Until then Marsh is working on bringing down fuel costs by testing compressed natural gas engines for better fuel economy and less emissions issues while still hoping to appeal to qualified drivers with updated systems, in-board scanners and, after three years, a stake in the company.

“Nine years ago, we sold our company to our employees,” Marsh says. “The drivers own part of it, mechanics own part of it, the staff, the office. We’re all pining for drivers.”

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