Learning Curve: Future state–What’s a truck driver

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.

The National Occupational Classification (NOC) 2006 is the government of Canada’s definitions resource, used daily by people trying to understand the jobs that make up Canada’s labour market.

In it, the NOC says truck drivers “operate heavy trucks to transport goods and materials over urban, interurban, provincial and international routes. They are employed by transportation companies, manufacturing and distribution companies, moving companies and employment service agencies, or they may be self-employed. This unit group also includes shunters who move trailers to and from loading docks within trucking yards or lots.”

There’s more, but you get the point. While this description remains mostly accurate, it won’t stay that way much longer. The truck driver’s future state is going to look very different.

Actually, I predict that the truck driver of the mid-century will have knowledge and skills way beyond the computer- or even social-media literate level of teenagers of today. The driver will manage multiple visual and audible inputs including road, screen, objects, signage and audio communication.

Don’t worry, they won’t be using their fingers to communicate. Such features, some of which are already in today’s cars and light duty trucks, will be completely handled through voice-to-text or other touchless methods.

In the future, driver monitoring biometrics will have a stronger presence too, along with dash cams and other devices designed to help equipment operators reduce the risk of collisions. Truck automation is sure to remove driver error and vehicle damage from the equation.

It will also keep the engine function safe and sound by ensuring consistent speeds, reducing or eliminating heavy braking, helping manage gear selection with sensitive shifting action—not to mention offering better engine cooling and emission controls.

Physically, the truck will be compatible with, and adjustable to fit a range of environments, including those with variable dock levels and locks, to indoor delivery, on-the-ground-tail-gate, and many other situations. Emission control, engine wear, fuel efficiency and idling will be part of regular manufacturing overhauls designed to get the most of the vehicle with the least amount of environmental damage. Trucks will be constantly working to minimize fuel use.

At some point, remote diagnostics will enable fleets to better manage servicing and maintenance, to increase lifespan.

With all these advances in place, it only takes an eye squint and the power of suggestion to guess what might be coming down the pike. What’s the trucking industry’s “next big thing?”

Well, I’ve seen the future and his name is Otto.

Former Google, Apple and Tesla engineers founded Otto to design and build an autonomous truck, a retrofitted Volvo VNL 780 model currently test driven in Nevada. Otto co-founder Lior Ron, speaking to BackChannel said while trucks cover 5.6 percent of all highway miles, they are responsible for 9.5 percent of all fatalities.

Half of truckers are away from home 200 nights a year, Ron said. Federal regulations set the truck operation allowance at 11 hours a day (14 in Canada) for a single driver. After 10 hours, the accident rate rises exponentially. “If we can make Otto drive safely 24/7, more than doubling its capacity and utilization, that’s a very strong financial argument.”

With a truck driver shortage projected to hit 33,000 drivers by 2020, with just under 300,000 truck drivers employed in Canada and a 25 percent turnover
rate, the reasons for going driverless seem to be mounting.

Not so fast, says the Blue Ribbon Task Force created by trucking industry members and the Canadian Trucking Alliance. It says the trucking industry “does not see automated vehicles as a means to resolve labour shortages,” though it sees technology advancement coming. “Automation will likely introduce itself piecemeal, starting with driver assist technologies. There is the prospect that drivers will engage in other activities while seated behind the wheel.”

So, even if Otto’s trucks never officially leave the warehouse, the vehicle of the future will still be more like a computer–with freight and a rider on board mostly just for the ride. With all the safety and security taken care of, the truck driver will be transported to a digital age of inputs for collision avoidance, blind spot recognition, on-road vehicle distance maintenance and many other features to enhance the driving experience.

But my bet’s on Otto—or some version of it—coming to revolutionize the industry, alter its financial model and radically change the way our trucks move freight around our cities and highways.