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Autonomous trucks may still require a driver

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While a future with automated trucking in some form and to some degree seems certain, the idea of removing drivers from the equation appears out of the question.

“My opinion is there will always be a driver in the truck,” said Joe Rubini, president of Rally Logistics Inc. BB #:209734 in Toronto, ON.

This is in direct opposition to Starsky Robotics founder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, who definitely wants to remove drivers from trucks.

Seltz-Axmacher told Wired magazine last year, “We want to get people out of the cab because the work is unpleasant and dangerous.” Numerous folks would disagree with this assessment, and not just because of the latter part of the statement.

Seltz-Axmacher and Starsky Robotics’ answer to removing drivers is remote control. This particular scenario foresees trucks being autonomous on roadways then piloted remotely whenever complex situations arise such as bad weather or other inhospitable conditions.

In much the same way military pilots control drones or how gamers play with a PlayStation or Xbox, operators would receive information directly from trucks and remotely pilot when and if needed.

Boots on the ground
There are, however, still many tangible reasons a driver might need to be in the cab as well as on-site concerns for autonomous vehicles or robo-trucking. Ensuring the safety of trucks and perishable cargo and delivery are among the reasons why trucking companies and brokers believe a driver is not optional.

“There’s a lot more that happens at the dock than people realize or are willing to admit,” said Kenny Lund, vice president of support operations for Allen Lund Company, LLC, BB #:107465 based in La Canada, near Los Angeles. “You need a driver to take responsibility for the truck.”

“When the truck arrives at a destination, then what?” asks Michael Miqueli, owner and president of North Bergen, NJ-based San Antonio Broker Services, Inc. BB #:197829
“Does it park itself? Does someone have to be there to park it? There are many unanswered points that need to be addressed before any of this can go forward.”

Coupling tractors and trailers, fueling, inspections, paperwork, and interacting with customers are also part of a run.

Kevin Small, founder and CEO of Agri-Fresh Inc., BB #:342499 a produce hauler based in Lockport, MB, agrees, “I don’t think the human component is going anywhere for a long while.”

“There are so many hurdles,” Lund said. “What happens if a truck breaks down because now it’s running all the time? And if you have a $150,000 truck and a $200,000 load, do you really want it out there on the highway with no one in the truck?”

While most advocates don’t anticipate eliminating drivers, they do expect alterations to a driver’s role.

“I don’t think there’s a big incentive to get the driver out of the truck,” Lund said. “I think there’s an incentive to get the driver out of the driver’s seat for some amount of time.”

This, of course, would help with the ongoing battle over hours of service restrictions.