PACCAR Dives into Driverless Technology

By Don C. Brunell

PACCAR’s recent announcement that it’s teaming with computer chipmaker Nvidia to build driverless trucks is good for Washington.

PACCAR, the century-old Bellevue-based truck builder, plans to manufacture new Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF computer-guided trucks capable of delivering freight over our nation’s roadways. Hopefully, many of them will be assembled at its Renton plant.

Self-driving cars already exist. Google has been testing them since 2009. They have logged over 2 million miles. Of the 11 accidents that occurred during that time, the company reports none were caused by its autos and there were no injuries of consequence.

As Google, other software companies and car manufacturers work to perfect computer guidance technology, autonomous trucks are already being tested.

For example, Anheuser Busch InBev sent its first truckload of beer last October from Fort Collins through downtown Denver to Colorado Springs in a computer-driven semi-tractor trailer rig, with a driver riding along to monitor the trip.

In Europe, Volvo is already developing trucks capable of “platooning.” The technique allows computers in two or more long-haul trucks with trailers traveling in tandem to talk to one another along the route. According to the American Transportation Research Institute, platooned trucks driven tightly together could cut fuel costs by 20 percent.

Trucking platoon testing is coming to Southern California later this year, Transportation Topics reports. In trials, drivers will sit behind the wheels of three 53-foot Volvo big rigs. All will steer the vehicles, but the second and third drivers won’t touch the gas or brake pedals.

Initially, the new self-driving trucks will be what are called SAE Level 4 trucks, in which operators monitor computers doing the route. According to Morgan Stanley, fully automated trucks will hit the market in 2022, gain acceptance and begin to dominate in subsequent years.

A seismic workforce shift may come with today’s 3.5 million truck drivers. Some industry researchers believe up to half of today’s drivers could lose their jobs to computers in the decade to come. However, in the next five years, our nation needs 100,000 additional drivers as traditional human-driven trucks dominate.

Trucks carry 70 percent of the nation’s cargo and drivers earn $40,000 or more per year. In total, trucking supports 8.7 million related jobs, according to the American Trucking Association.

Scott Santens, a New Orleans writer who specializes in human trends, said middle-class workers will be hit the hardest. “Truck driving is just about the last job in the country to provide a solid middle-class salary without requiring a post-secondary degree,” he said.

The 3.5 million truck drivers traveling all over the country stop regularly to fuel up, eat, drink, rest and sleep. Entire businesses have been built around service drivers’ needs, Santens wrote.

ATA estimates it takes 38 billion gallons of diesel a year to fuel America’s trucking fleets. Anheuser Busch InBev believes deploying autonomous trucks across its fleet will save $50 million a year through fuel reductions and more frequent delivery schedules.

Self-driving vehicle proponents believe highway safety will improve.

In 2016, more than 40,000 Americans died on our highways. The National Highway Safety Transportation Administration estimates that 94 percent of those deaths were caused by human error.

Heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers accounted for the most workplace fatalities of all occupations in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

Marques McCammon, general manager for connected vehicles solutions at Wind River (an Intel subsidiary), told Transport Topics: “Smart vehicles, with more electronic eyes than humans, will have greater ability to sense obstacles or other dangers.”

Change is coming to trucking. Hopefully, PACCAR’s new partnership will keep it at the cutting edge as a truck manufacturer.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is past president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.