Talking Tech with Truckers

Monday, January 29, 2018

I recently had the great pleasure to be a guest on Road Dog Trucking, the Sirius XM radio program with 1.2 million daily listeners. The host, Mark Willis, asked me to discuss the disruptive technologies impacting the trucking industry: autonomous trucks, drones, the Uberization of freight, Big Data, and the Internet of Things. Based on their experiences with new technologies in the cab, on the road, and at the loading dock, callers asked a series of excellent questions. From a transcript, I have excerpted a few of our exchanges.

Mark Willis: Let’s go to the phone. First off, I’ve got Jeff coming up in Indiana. Do you think autonomous trucks will turn the industry on its ears? Is that going to be one of the disruptors? How do you feel about the technology?

Jeff: Well, I think one of the major problems right now—and it’s going to be a problem with the self-driving trucks—is the shippers and receivers. If you have these self-driving trucks, you may have at one time 10 trucks arrive at one location with 5 doors available. Now, I’ve worked for a company that manufactured software for the police industry and the technology out there for arrivals. Every truck has a GPS and at least could be tracked, and I don’t understand why they haven’t developed any software yet that works kind of like air traffic control, where they can decide, “slow this truck down” or “speed this truck up,” which is what they need to do.

Mark Willis: Yes, that brings up an excellent point—is the infrastructure with the shippers ready for this kind of technology? What do you think about that, Steve, about technology maybe getting to the point where it can slow down or speed up the delivery of the truck, based on the shipper’s priority, for what’s going on at their docks?

Steve Sashihara: Well, some of things being looked at have a similar motive, and shippers are very motivated by money. It’s not the only thing they care about, but it is a big part of how their people are compensated. So, if they could see your truckers come in to either load or unload, and they could get the docks ready so that when you bump the dock, they could get you loaded and unloaded much faster because they’re already ready, that would effectively have the same impact, which is less dock congestion. No one’s making money when a driver's sitting, waiting in a line to load and unload. So, if they can improve that step, there’s money in it for them, and there’s money in it for the drivers.

Mark Willis: Now, let’s go over to Rusty, who’s next up in the state of Nevada. Welcome, sir, what do you think some of the disruptors are going to be, do you think it’s going to be autonomous vehicles and self-driving? How do you feel about it, the technology?

Rusty: Well, there is a place for technology. I’m not against it completely, but what I have a problem with is all the electronic gadgets that they’re putting into trucks today—just way too many.

Mark Willis: OK, like the lane departure warning system?

Rusty: Oh, yeah. Now, I'm a guy that hauls open-deck. I came down from Canada, come to Nevada here with an open trailer 9-foot-6 wide. I'm going back 10-feet wide. Now, a lane departure system is my worst enemy in somebody else’s truck, because they’re frozen, and they’re worried that they’re going to get s--t from the company if they depart their lane. I need that extra room. Now, a 10‑foot wide load is not wide, but I’ve come down the highway at 12 and 14 feet, and they absolutely refuse. They’re petrified, they don’t know how to run the system. And, you know, you, the lanes are 12 feet, the guy’s hugging the center line, that’s exactly where his machine says he has to be, and he refuses to move.

Mark Willis: I appreciate the phone call. Steve, weigh in on that because with the technology that’s coming on board that could revolutionize and really be disruptors, if you will, is there a problem that could develop with this if the technology is not properly explained to the drivers how these things work? How important is that communication bridge, if you will?

Steve Sashihara: Oh, absolutely it’s important. I think, like any other technology, even if it takes four steps forward, there's going to be one step sideways, and it means you have to learn how to handle all the special conditions like your caller’s—his need to have people budge out of the way and his legitimate reason to be moving his loads. So that’s all the learning the industry’s going to have to have to make this successful.

Mark Willis: And is there a lot of confidence in the safety of the technology overall? That would be one of the questions out there, because I would think that some folks might be concerned about some of the road conditions that could exist, like ice, for example, or the cover of darkness. Candyman in Arkansas, would you agree with that this technology has yet to be proven in below average weather? You're on with my guest on the program.

Candyman: Hi, how y’all doing? The problem with autonomous vehicles is a person sitting behind the wheel can feel road conditions, can look down the road and see an oversized vehicle come at me and I know I need to move over a little bit and give him space. So, if you’re autonomous, where even if you’re doing it where you’re like a pilot that’s on autopilot and an oversized truck comes up behind you hauling a load that’s 14‑feet wide, then how is the technology in the truck going to know, “OK, I need to pull over a little bit, give that other truck space.” How? That’s the part I don't understand about autonomous, or even autopilot, is that, you’d be on the interstate and have a truck coming by you hauling a D7 bulldozer that's 13' 6" wide.

Mark Willis: What do you think about that, Steve? If somebody, say, is in a tractor‑trailer behind a wheel and they blow the horn at that autonomous vehicle? Is that autonomous vehicle going to hear that? What are your thoughts on that? How would that work?

Steve Sashihara: I appreciate the caller’s question. It’s supposed to see pedestrians. It's supposed to see road hazards. It’s supposed to see the difference between a crumpled-up piece of trash and a real hazard. And if someone hits the brakes or bangs their horn, it sure better sense it. I also want to say this one quick thing—think of these things in fleets. Not necessarily right now, because they’re still new. You think of it like an island. So, instead of self‑driving sort of replacing a person, think if you had a whole fleet of them, and they can talk back and forth. So, the extra‑wide could be telling the whole highway system up and down, 10 miles up, 10 miles back, “Hey I’m an extra wide. I need clearance. I don't have good stopping. You just have to get out of my way.”

Candyman: OK, and what actually makes that communicate? Because they can have satellite TV and if it starts raining, it goes out.

Steve Sashihara: A great point. The thing about current technologies is you’re communicating up to something way up in the sky and if you have any kind of interference with that, you’re deaf, and you can’t talk. So, your cell might drop out. Whatever. But if the fleet of vehicles creates a network that talks back and forth, as long as someone in the connected fleet has a line of sight to the satellite, the whole fleet would—that’s the hope.

Mark Willis: All right, let's go to Tiny, next up, in Illinois. Tiny, what do you think about this? You're on with Steve Sashihara about the disruptors. What’s on your list as far as disruption in the industry?

Tiny: Well, I had one comment I was going to make, but as I’ve listened I have now another question I feel is more important. And listening to you, to the conversation while I was waiting, I had heard we were talking about how these tools would be great for assisting drivers who may not be as talented as some of us are with driving. And something that keeps raising my question is that I hear all this technology is supposed to be a tool to assist the driver, but it isn’t supposed to help bad drivers. Bad drivers are already bad at driving. What can you possibly give them to make them better? I mean, if I was in the mechanic industry...I’m just a truck driver, so if you hand me a wrench and say, “This will help you,” I'm still not going to know what to do. You just gave me a wrench. I’m still going to be a bad at fixing cars. So how in the heck are these “tools” going to be assistants to bad drivers? Tools are supposed to help people who already know what they are doing. It’s just an assistant. That now begs the question are they trying to replace the driver or to assist the driver? Because, I’m confused.

Mark Willis: That's a great question. Bad drivers are bad drivers in any population, Steve. So, will this technology make those “bad drivers” safer out here? What do you say?

Steve Sashihara: I don’t know, but here’s what I think. The technologies can be funded by insurance companies looking for common sense ways of sensing a classic bad behavior. So, if someone keeps falling asleep or they’re lane drifting a lot, it can just identify this as people that should probably look for a different job and decongest our roads from people that aren’t really professional‑grade drivers. Right now, if you don’t speed, you don’t hit the brakes too hard, and you're not in an accident—or you pass your breathalyzer test—we don't have a whole lot of ways of grading drivers. So, I think, for all the good drivers out there, the technology is not trying to take an already short list of drivers and making them even smaller, but it might have a potential of identifying the people who shouldn’t be in our profession.