Eric Tanenblatt on Uberizing Big Trucks: 18 Wheels Have Never Been So Cool Or Important

Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

For the commute-weary driver, autonomous technology represents a sexy splurge, but for fleet operations, full autonomy represents the singular business imperative of the 21st century.

When a nondescript tractor trailer trundled 120 miles down a Colorado highway completely unmanned last year, safely reaching a shipping warehouse with a cargo of 45,000 cans of beer, the experiment in autonomous freight movement was largely crowded out by flashier headlines by the big rig’s smaller cousin: the driverless car.

But while autonomous cars may be provocative, autonomous trucks are practical―and promise to be radically transformative for an industry struggling to balance hiring demands with liability, labor and safety regulations.

The lay public’s intense fascination in driverless rides is couched in their misunderstanding, or the media’s deliberate misstatement, of the technology’s current pace. Now, understand that it’s racing, but not faster than speed-throttling government regulation will allow.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates autonomy―that is, the level of human or alternatively computer operation of a vehicle―at five graduated tiers.

At Level Zero, the human driver controls everything from steering to throttling. Skipping up to Level Two you find combined functions of cruise control and lane-centering, at least momentarily disengaging human drivers from control of the steering wheel and throttle pedals. At Level Three you begin to find restrained autonomy: drivers are still required to perform safety-critical functions (when variable weather or traffic conditions overwhelm the vehicle’s computers).

Levels Four and Five, though, are the moonshot: drivers are not required in either instance, and at its zenith neither are conventional human controls. Otto’s beer run, which relegated the driver to the sleeper bunk, clocked in at Level Four, the first in the nation.

The freight industry entered 2016 with a deficit of 48,000 truckers, according to industry figures, and the American Trucking Association estimates that this deficit may swell to 175,000 within the space of eight years.

Increase in shipping growth coupled with a diminished labor force requires longer routes, especially for owner-operators, and these more rigorous hauls create a whole host of safety concerns for the driving public.

According to federal statistics, in excess of 400,000 trucks crashed in 2014 (the most recent year for which that data is available). Human error―failing to recognize a dangerous situation or to respond properly―was to blame in almost every instance.

Cutting-edge computers of the sort employed by the driverless, beer-loaded big rig, which married advanced mapping, locationing, and radar, are capable of reading and responding to dangerous situations in ways no human can.

Just a few months ago, a family traveling down the Autobahn was alerted by their Tesla’s autopilot system (for now, a misnomer, as Tesla’s road-legal vehicles register at Level Two autonomy) to the imminent possibility of a two-car wreck down-road. Footage from the car’s dash camera records the alert just as the two cars collide in frightening fashion.

”When it happened, when the other cars started hitting the brakes, I also started hitting the brakes,” the driver, Frank van Hoesel told NBC News. “But then the car was already almost stopped.”

Apply that same technology to a 40 ton. eighteen wheeler and you’ve dramatically reduced. Reduced risk means diminished liability, which in turn squashes cost―for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers alike.

For the commute-weary driver, autonomous technology represents a sexy splurge, an investment in safety and sanity, but for fleet operations, Levels Four and Five autonomy represent the singular business imperative of the 21st century.

Increased operational efficiency, diminished liability, and safer roads ― who says practicality can’t be sexy?

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.