Here’s something that’s often overlooked in all the excitement over self-driving trucks, and in discussions of how soon we can expect to see them on the roads: the promise of bypassing hours of service (HOS) rules is, at least in the short term, the biggest incentive for trucking companies to move toward greater autonomy.
And it’s a pretty huge incentive.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration places strict limitations on both the number of hours a driver can be behind the wheel without stopping for a break and the minimum length of the breaks that driver must take. These rules were established to prevent accidents caused by fatigued operators.
But what happens when the one driving the truck doesn’t get fatigued?
Back in June of 2019, the Eno Center, a Washington think tank devoted to improving transportation, reported on an advanced notice of proposed policy changes affecting the industry. According to the report,
The most significant proposal is how automated systems relate to hours of service (HOS) rules… The FMCSA proposed continuing the current approach for HOS rules, meaning that if the driver is in the sleeper-berth (including while the vehicle is controlled by ADS [automated driving system] technology), the human driver is considered off-duty. And if the human driver is working but the automated system is conducting the driving, then the work should be considered on-duty but not driving.
The report refers to Federal Automated Vehicle Policy (FAVP) 3.0, and even though FMCSA has since released its FAVP 4.0, the HOS rules have yet to be formalized. When they do go into effect, however, autonomous driving technology will immediately start offering major boosts to productivity for any trucking company that adopts it.
That leaves two questions: First, when will these rules be formalized and implemented? Second, when will the technology be available for trucking companies to take advantage of the proposed changes—or rather the lack of changes?
The answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second. No official will want to sign off on rules governing autonomous vehicles until it’s clear what the technology is capable of. Before allowing trucks to drive themselves while the human operator sleeps in the berth, regulators are going to need some assurances that the automated driving system isn’t going to put anyone in danger.
So, when will the technology go online that allows drivers to put their trucks on autopilot? Fully autonomous, or level 5 autonomy, is somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years off, according to most experts. But level 4 autonomy, which means the truck can take over for the driver, but the driver must still be in the vehicle, is by some estimates less than 5 years away.
Self-driving trucks are already doing test runs across different parts of the country. For the most part, though, it’s the regions with weather conditions that are sunny and dry. The eventual solution for the challenges posed by variable weather and road conditions will probably involve some combination of cameras and/or LiDAR. But, to achieve level 4 autonomy, all the truck would need to do when it runs into bad weather is alert the driver who’s already onboard.
This arrangement could also be used to address the difficulty of last-mile driving. Once a self-driving truck gets off the highway, it can call on the human operator to take over. That way, it’ll be the human navigating through tighter city lanes with heavier traffic, backing up to docks, and threading through high-pedestrian areas.
Even with the human driver trading off with the automated driving system in this way, the opportunity to extend overall drive time while avoiding falling afoul of HOS rules promises massive gains in total mileage.
“If you imagine a vehicle that’s not limited by hours of service it will be able to make a cross country trip in a matter of two days instead of the five or six that are required by a normal human driver,” Jonny Morris from autonomous truck company Embark told a reporter for Supply Chain Drive.
To give you an idea of the scale for these gains, the FMCSA estimated the savings from some minor tweaks to HOS rules at $274 million for the industry. The rule changes in question here focus on giving drivers greater flexibility in when they can take breaks, so they have nothing to do with autonomous trucks. But the size of the forecasted savings provides a sense of just how cataclysmic the bigger industry disruption will be.
The ability to cut cross-country transport time from five or six days to two is going to give early adopters a huge advantage over everyone else. And productivity gains on this scale are sure to drive investments in R&D for the next generation of self-driving trucks. What this means is that whether it takes five years or ten we’re on the verge of seeing a historic shift in the transportation industry.
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