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Trucking Leaders Discuss Future of Autonomy at Insight Tech Conference

As applications and tools powered by artificial intelligence (AI) gain more popularity, every industry is considering how to best use the technology to increase efficiency, including transportation and logistics. There's especially been a lot of buzz around the possibility of AI-powered truck operation, otherwise known as “autonomous trucking.” At this year’s Insight Tech Conference + Expo, Trimble experts joined leaders from Kodiak Robotics, Torc Robotics and Covenant to discuss the progress, challenges and exciting road ahead for autonomous trucking.

Louis Nastro, director of strategy and marketing for Trimble, set the stage for the conversation by sharing an overview of the five different levels of autonomy as they increase in technological complexity and capability and where the transportation industry sits right now among them. The levels, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, include: 1) Driver assistance, 2) Partial automation, 3) Conditional automation, 4) High automation and 5) Full automation.

Nastro remarked that  when it comes to autonomous vehicles, at the moment, we’re primarily at level two – partial automation – but that the capacity for automation varies by industry and application. There are some fully operational autonomous transportation systems across the country, but most are still in testing mode and using safety drivers.

One major challenge today is precise positioning and orientation for autonomous vehicles and machines, Nastro said. Trimble offers a positioning ecosystem solution with camera and sensor integration that can help companies keep advancing their autonomous capabilities with safety always at the forefront.

Leading the Charge on Creating a Safety Solution

One leading tech innovator is Kodiak Robotics, which is working to create broader use and acceptance of autonomous trucking as a safe and efficient solution for moving freight. Kodiak is currently running a small fleet of 33 trucks to better understand the needs, requirements and challenges for the autonomous portion of a long-haul trip.

On closed courses, Kodiak runs driverless trucks and gathers data from simulations to make adaptations and improvements. The company is also completing 50 loads per week for select food industry customers on public roads. These trips include a safety driver who oversees the leg of the route during which the autonomous driving software is enabled to operate independently. 

To date, Kodiak has driven over two million safe miles and has a covered network of 18,000 miles within its software’s catalog. Kodiak is working closely with partners and customers every step of the way to expand this catalog and the solution’s capabilities.

Michael Wiesinger, Kodiak’s vice president of commercialization, said: “It’s an ecosystem play. It’s not one company that’s going to dictate everything. We have to bring everyone together to the table and discuss how this solution looks end-to-end. That’s something that is fundamentally important to bring autonomous trucking solutions.”

Bringing Key Players Together

The roundtable discussion of  autonomous trucking delved into a wide range of subjects related to the technology’s development and implementation, including innovation, costs, safety concerns, job loss/gain, the regulatory environment and more. Walter Grigg, leader of industry relations at Torc Robotics, talked about machine-learning and AI being applied to the behavior of a vehicle to help inform performance. He compared building an autonomous trucking solution to building a tool like the Phillips-head screwdriver to help meet a very specific application.

As the solution is being built, safety is a top priority. "Accidents are really at the top of the list of things that keep us up at night, and we think that [autonomous trucking] is going to make a better decision than the [human] driver,” commented Matt McLelland, vice president of sustainability and innovation for Covenant Logistics.

In addition to safety, a reduction of overhead and maintenance costs are at the top of the list of potential autonomous trucking benefits. With autonomous trucking, there is an opportunity to better control costs using consistent routes and speeds, no unexpected stops, proactive maintenance and better overall management of an asset’s condition and activity. A recent Trimble survey of more than 150 C-suite executives found the number one reason for adopting autonomous technology would be to lower costs, followed closely by improving safety.

The group also talked about the perception that the advancement of autonomous trucking will result in job loss. McLelland said, “We see AI augmenting fleets, not replacing drivers. If you take a job with us [today] as a 21-year-old driver, you can retire with us.”

Most working in this space foresee new job creation as a result of a systematic change with autonomous driving and AI capabilities. The regulatory climate is also positive. Currently, 22 states allow autonomous driving on public roads and 40 states allow autonomous testing and driverless equipment.

Getting Started with Autonomous Solutions

For trucking companies interested in getting started with autonomous trucking – in a separate Insight session – Grigg noted the most important elements are implementing a solution that is inherently safe, commercially scalable and economically viable. With the ability to predict and respond to hazardous conditions faster than a human driver, autonomous solutions are poised to make significant improvements in safety, regardless of the level of its implementation. 

Trimble, for instance, has enhanced several of its transportation industry solutions with AI-powered technology, including our Video Intelligence solutions. Paired with a suite of onboard cameras, Trimble’s Video Intelligence uses advanced detection capabilities to warn a driver of risks before they become accidents, and automatically informs back office staff of incidents on the road. 

As we continue to seek opportunities for AI-powered technologies to increase efficiency and safety, we’re helping lay the groundwork for autonomous trucking, should the industry embrace it. Trimble’s autonomous technology is designed to meet the unique needs of customers, no matter where they are on their autonomy journey.

Interested in learning how our autonomy solutions can help optimize your business? Contact our team to discuss your needs and schedule a demo.