Tag Archives: driverless trucks

Autonomous Trucks, Arriving in Texas

The world of self-driving trucks continues to expand as new technologies are being tested and more companies are emerging with revolutionary autonomous fleets of semi-truck tractors that increase safety and efficiency. There’s no denying that these 80,000-pound tractor trailer rigs, which number over 2 million in the U.S., will disrupt the trucking industry as fleets convert to autonomous units. It won’t be long before it will be normal to see these special trucks on the highway. Experts say seven years or less. Already, Australia’s Rio Tinto has 73 huge autonomous mining trucks hauling iron 24 hours a day.

In 2017, the Texas legislature passed a pair of bills legalizing both driverless cars and trucks, allowing these new self-driving trucking operations to deliver cargo to every corner of the Lone Star state. Unlike other states, such as California, self-driving developers don’t need special permits to test in Texas. Executives with several autonomous trucking firms say that they are working closely with Texas authorities, who, supporters say, are big boosters of trucking tech. Even the U.S. Postal Service has tested transporting mail there via robotic trucks. Texas has also kicked off a number of U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) projects to promote advanced truck tech with funding from a federal grant that will enhance the safety of all autonomous vehicles in the state.

A year-old startup company in Dallas, called Kodiak Robotics, will be running its driverless trucks on roundtrip hauls of more than 400 miles between Dallas and Houston. For now, Kodiak will have a “safety driver” available in the cab to make sure the robotic trucks don’t misbehave, but eventually the truck fleet, often traveling in convoys, will be monitored remotely through advanced camera technology similar to military drones. The latest technology has extended the autonomous vehicle industry’s Lidar remote sensing standard of 270 yards to nearly 1,100 yards. There are also a bevy of sensors that monitor thousands of data inputs each second to help navigate and control every function of the truck. The technology is also self-learning. The benefits are pretty obvious. Autonomous trucks can transport goods 24/7 with no mandatory 11-hour-per-day operating limits. They are fuel-efficient with little down time; there are no cell phone, passenger or other driver distractions; and the driverless trucks obey all traffic laws. Increased trucking safety and efficiency are clearly the goals.

See also: The Real Story on Transportation  

It’s no surprise that other big firms like Daimler (Mercedes), Waymo (Google), Volvo, Volkswagen, UPS and Tesla are all vigorously testing automated trucks. Keep in mind, the stakes are high. Trucks are the backbone of the U.S. economy, moving over 10 billion tons, 70% of all the country’s freight, and generating more than $700 billion in revenues in 2017. Trucking is the largest industry in 29 states, with Texas demonstrating steady revenue growth of 2.1% annually for the past five years. With no sign of trucking being slowed by technology, experts focus on the existing and future physical and mental demands of long-haul truckers. In turn, trucking operations using workers’ compensation insurance, or the Texas ERISA-based alternative injury benefit plan, expect that truck driver injuries or illnesses will decline.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), vehicle crashes are the leading cause of workplace deaths, with frequency of motor vehicle accidents on the rise over the past five years. In 2017, there were 2,077 workers’ compensation fatalities involving motor vehicles, accounting for 41% of all work-related deaths that year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says over 90% of such accidents are due at least in part to driver error. There’s no doubt that truck drivers are highly skilled, to drive their semi-trucks safely, but trucking firms report that nearly 70% of their highway big rig accidents are largely attributed to drivers’ unsafe actions. How will autonomous trucks deal with errant drivers?

Besides the long hours behind the wheel, other causes of injuries to drivers include the fact that semi-trucks are like mobile warehouses, with drivers performing a wide variety of duties in and around the tractor trailer and its cargo, often in adverse weather or road conditions. Drivers, particularly with an aging workforce, are understandably more susceptible to back, shoulder and knee claims. It’s a tough, demanding job. Lost-time injuries and the inability to assume meaningful transitional return-to-work duties are a challenge with trucking company fleet scheduling demands. Smaller trucking firms may have no other transitional duties available.

The nation’s 3.5 million commercial truck drivers in 2017 experienced 47,860 injuries or illnesses out of a total of 882,730 total occupational injuries. The National Safety Council states that motor vehicle claims are by far the most expensive workers’ compensation claim, on average at over $100,000 each. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) says that, over a five-year period, these roadway claims accounted for 28% of claims above $500,000.

According to Commercial Truck Insurance HQ, a company that assists in obtaining various trucking related casualty insurance quotes, typical truck driver workers’ compensation insurance (NCCI category 7219) costs between 8% and 15% of a truck driver’s salary. With an average driver’s salary of $57,000 in 2019, this is an annual employer workers’ compensation premium of $4,580 to $8,550. With prior accidents or injuries, some trucking firms can experience annual per driver premium rates as high as $24,960 in Texas and $31,200 in California. Unlike for the majority of the country’s labor force, a reduction in frequency and severity of truck driver claims can translate into significant cost savings to the various employers that manage their truck hauling and delivery services.

Despite operating challenges like slick roadways, construction zones, severe weather, stalled vehicles or obstructions in the roadway, extreme precautionary measures are woven into the autonomous technology to ensure that safety is the top priority. Lane departure – often a beef with auto vehicles trying to pass trucks on the freeway – is better than ever. Trucks in caravans are expected, for the most part, to stay in the right lanes. Other enhancements include: forward collision mitigation; active breaking; and anti-rollover stability. Enhanced health and wellness is expected for drivers who are assigned to ride along in the cab and who will be able to use mobile devices at will or even eat or sleep in the cab as the autonomous unit travels.

What about vehicle liability? It’s assumed by legal and insurance analysts that the firms operating the driverless vehicles are most likely the deep pockets in the event of a serious accident or injury. Liability insurers are banking that trucking firms will have a lower frequency and severity of vehicle liability claims, as well. Overall, experts claim the savings to trucking firms using autonomous vehicles will ultimately be in the tens of billions of dollars. This helps both truckers and their employers as the new technology rolls out.

Assuming safety improves for both truck operators and other vehicles on the highway interacting with these trucks, the next big question has to do with truck driver jobs. The trucking industry currently has over 3.5 million Class 8 heavy-duty (GVWR of 33,001 pounds or more) truck drivers, but it has steadily lost its most experienced baby boomer drivers due to retirement or disability. While truckers were highly unionized until the 1970s, about 13% of the drivers are in unions, and over 10% of truck drivers, about 350,000, are solo operators who own their own trucks. The average age of truck drivers is 55, with 94% male, averaging only $45,000 per year in annual salary. Sadly, truck drivers also suffer a higher degree of chronic disease, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Adding to severe driver shortages is the fact that younger generations of employees are not interested in being in a sedentary, and often lonely, job. Long-haul truck drivers average 240 nights a year away from home, sleeping in the cab, motels or at truck stops and eating at diners or fast food restaurants. Over 100,000 truck driver positions are expected to be open in 2020 alone, with greater shortages predicted for the future. A bigger question will be the nature of work that new drivers will experience. What can a truck driver/operator expect as a job description in the future?

See also: Rapid Evolution of Autonomous Vehicles  

So how does all of this new technology affect workers? Are truck drivers going to be out of a job? Employers say that their intention is to have truck drivers in the cab to assist in loading and delivery, security, as well as logistics, route planning, and communications. So far, trucking companies state that their drivers for the foreseeable future will remain in the truck cab, much like an airline co-pilot, with the ability to take over the driving in the case of emergencies.

Automation and robotics have had a huge impact on our country’s workforce, but additional advancements are well on their way. It’s expected, for instance, that ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft will be displaced ultimately by autonomous vehicles operating 24/7. This technological leap in transportation should ultimately translate into massive productivity increases. But qualified drivers are needed in the interim to see us through this transition phase before autonomous vehicles, including trucks, are the norm. Our nation’s most important economic asset – employees – may struggle as employment opportunities shift direction, but autonomous driving technologies will change the employment landscape, creating efficiencies and enhancing workplace safety in ways we’ve never witnessed.

The Dark Side of Rapid Change

Global trade and investment have been great engines of progress for much of the world. Over the past two decades, poorer countries reduced the gap between themselves and their richer counterparts for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, in no small part because of the opportunities opened by global trade. Technology has the same transformative potential in industries as varied as energy, health care, transportation and education. Inventions that are imminent or already here could transform the lives of billions of people for the better.

Yet, as we see in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, and as we have seen in Europe and elsewhere, rapid change has a dark side. If too many people are unable to adapt quickly and successfully to these changes, they will push back – blaming trade or immigrants or the elites – and demand a reversion to a simpler time.

The task of governments is to help people manage these transformations so that they benefit many and do as little harm as possible. In the U.S., governments mostly failed at that task during the era of globalization; if the full benefits of the coming technologies are to be enjoyed, governments will have to do much better this time around.

See also: ‘Interactive Finance’: Meshing with Google  

The competitive pressures created by globalization should have been no surprise. About 45 years ago, President Richard Nixon’s top international economic adviser, Pete Peterson, warned him that rising competition from Japan and Germany, with much more on the way, “poses adjustment policy which simply cannot be ignored.”

Americans have unquestionably gained by the lower prices and higher quality that import competition enabled. Apple iPhones and the latest Boeing jets are the result of the collective input of tens of thousands of collaborators in dozens of countries around the world. But many lost well-paid manufacturing jobs to import competition or outsourcing, and the U.S. government has made little effort to mitigate those costs, even in worker retraining.

President John F. Kennedy promised in 1962 that the government would help American workers who lost out to trade competition as the U.S. lowered its barriers to imports. “When considerations of national policy make it desirable to avoid higher tariffs, those injured by the competition should not be required to bear the full brunt of the impact,” he said. But today, the U.S. spends a smaller proportion of its wealth on worker retraining than any of the other 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development except for Mexico and Chile.

Too often, the attitude of the U.S. government has been deeply irresponsible, assuming that markets would simply sort everything out for the best. In the long run, everybody may end up with work and income, but, in the short run, as Peterson told Nixon, the failure to help Americans adapt to the new reality will “leave long periods when the transition is painful beyond endurance.”

With technology change, too, we know well in advance exactly what is coming. Driverless technology, for example, will soon become the standard in the trucking industry. Driverless trucks can run 24 hours a day and won’t demand overtime pay. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., and an additional 5.5 million jobs in related industries – roughly one in every 15 American workers. They could perhaps go to work for UPS or deliver pizzas, but many of those delivery jobs will be lost to drones.

Personal-care robots will increasingly replace home healthcare aides, and self-checkout machines are already replacing retail-store clerks; these are jobs that filled some of the gap left by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs to global competition, but they, too, will soon be under siege. Automation is even hitting law and education, two sectors long thought immune to technological substitution.

See also: How Technology Breaks Down Silos  

These vulnerabilities necessitate something that too often was absent in the era of globalization: good public policies. Artificial intelligence will transform teaching, for example, but, without access to the highest-speed broadband, students in poor and rural areas will fall further behind their urban counterparts. And unless we strengthen social safety nets and retraining schemes, there will be far too many losers in the labor market. There is no way to avoid the huge impact that technology will have on employment; we have to prepare for it and help those whose skills it antiquates.

Much more even than globalization, technology is going to create upheaval and destroy industries and jobs. This can be for the better, helping us create more interesting jobs or freeing up time for leisure and artistic pursuits. But unless we find ways to share the prosperity and help Americans adapt to the coming changes, many could be left worse off than they are. And, as we have seen this year, that is a recipe for an angry backlash—and political upheaval.

This article was written with Edward Alden.

Work Comp’s Future Is Not What You Think

Employment drives workers’ comp. More specifically: payroll, industry type and claim frequency.

Employment is the end-all, be-all of workers’ comp — for premiums and policies on the front end and for getting workers’ comp patients back to work when claims do happen.

So when a whole lot of jobs in a bunch of industries appear to be disappearing, we workers’ comp folks need to take notice.

If you insure, manage claims for, provide services to or otherwise work in the transportation/logistics industry, you’d best be watching developments in Pittsburgh and keeping your eye on Otto, the self-driving-truck company that Uber just bought for $680 million.

See also: States of Confusion: Workers Comp Extraterritorial Issues 

Uber is experimenting with self-driving cars in the Steel City, a big step on the way to fully automated driverless cars.

self-driving-uber

Ford is heavily involved and plans to have a self-driving car on the market in five years. Sign me up! As someone who spends way too much time behind the wheel, I’m all over this. Work, read, etc. while being transported to client meetings? Heck, yes!

The giant ride-sharing company is also behind Otto, an effort to automate long-haul trucking.

Photo below from the SF Chronicle//Testing of a Volvo truck by engineer Nic Munley.

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Unlike competitor Lyft, Uber doesn’t seem to care that its current drivers are going to be left ride-less in the not-too-distant future, nor is Uber bothered that, if when Otto and its lookalikes are successful in removing drivers from trucks, those 900,000 truck drivers will not have jobs.

And without truck drivers, truck stops won’t be selling much food or other necessities. Motels won’t be providing showers or rooms. Body shops won’t be needed as much, either.

Uber contends that the 24/7 usage of driverless vehicles will mean more jobs for mechanics, but that’s speculative, at best. In fact, as these vehicles will just be replacing miles driven by vehicles currently piloted by people and not adding more vehicle miles, I don’t see why any more mechanics will be needed. Actually, less maintenance may be the norm because of constant monitoring of vehicle systems.

See also: 25 Axioms Of Medical Care In The Workers Compensation System  

So…

  • fewer truck drivers
  • fewer support staffs
  • fewer jobs in service stations and motels
  • fewer “taxi-type” drivers
  • fewer accidents –> less work for body shops, less demand for auto parts and paint and less need for auto claims adjusters

For workers’ comp…

  • much lower premium volume
  • far fewer claims to service
  • far fewer jobs to return injured drivers to
  • possibly more claims in the near future as drivers see the writing on the wall