Robot Truck Revolution to Benefit Military
The domestic trucking industry will soon be pulling out ahead of the military, and the economy of scale it can provide will drive down the cost of robotic systems and finally make it affordable for ground forces.
TARDEC’s ponderous pace developing driverless trucks was spelled out in a June National Defense article, “Army Still Determining Best Use of Driverless Vehicles.”
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when roadside bombs were a scourge, the Army was motivated to reduce the number of drivers on the road. Convoys transporting supplies, water and fuel were being attacked daily, and civilians and war fighters alike were losing limbs and their lives just to get from point A to point B.
That is when the Army began work in earnest on driverless trucks and leader-follower concepts that could reduce the exposure of troops to improvised explosive devices. While many counter-IED technologies were rushed into battle zones in the 2000s, these ideas never made it there despite the relatively high technology readiness level.
There were many problems and questions: Was the technology good enough to stop a 16-ton truck from hitting a child walking in front of it? What were the tactics, techniques and procedures? Would it be affordable? TARDEC wanted the price to be about $20,000 per vehicle kit.
The June article noted that the Army is still interested in driverless trucks, but questions and technological hurdles remain.
Taking military vehicles off-road still poses problems. Driving on well-developed highways is relatively easy compared to navigating away from pavement.
That is where the military needs to invest its precious robotic development dollars. Robotic off-road vehicles can carry out medical evacuation and resupply out of hot zones. Leader-follower, or robotic wingman, concepts can take the load off troops’ backs or provide an extra set of sensors or weapons as long as they can navigate rough terrain.
As for convoys, or single trucks traveling on a smooth road, one could say the writing is on the wall as far as this occurring domestically. But it might be more accurate to say the writing is “on the trucks.” Driving up any U.S. interstate today, it’s common to see the words “Drivers Wanted” followed by a 1-800 number on the back doors of tractor-trailers.
The trucking industry appears to be ready for disruption.
Even when unemployment is high, truck companies face a shortage of qualified long-haul drivers. An Internet search for “truck driving jobs” will reveal websites offering $6,000 hiring bonuses.
It won’t be long before these firms are offered an alternative that might be too good to resist: a robotic system to drive the trucks.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules require that a driver rest 10 hours before taking on a 14-hour shift. Within those 14 hours, they can only drive 11 hours. It’s either that or hire two drivers so one can rest while the other drives — at double the labor cost.
Robots don’t need to sleep. They don’t drive drowsy. Robots don’t require health insurance. They don’t have to take drug and alcohol tests. They don’t develop bad backs from hours and days spent sitting in a truck and need to apply for workers compensation.
They don’t go over the speed limit. They don’t take chances during a snowstorm to make it home by Christmas. When a winter storm hits, an order to pullover and wait it out can be sent via satellite link.
Truck drivers are paid an average wage of $17 per hour, according to the PayScale.com website, which tracks salaries. There are 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in the United States, with a median salary of $38,000 per year, 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal. Long-haul truckers are away from home for days and weeks at a time, hence the aggressive recruitment campaign to replace those who leave this high-turnover profession. The workforce is aging, and younger drivers are not joining its ranks.
It’s unlikely that these long-haul trucking jobs will disappear overnight. An evolution rather than a revolution might be better for the labor force. These are decent paying jobs that don’t require higher education for a largely male workforce.
Just as the Federal Aviation Administration must do with unmanned aerial vehicles, federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over road safety will want assurances that these robotic big rigs are safe. So will citizens. Driverless cars are already being tested on Nevada and California streets.
But a robotic 18-wheeler can be more intimidating to other drivers than a driverless sedan.
One organization, the Central North American Trade Corridor Association, is proposing that U.S. Highway 83 become a testbed for driverless long-haul trucks. U.S. 83 extends from North Dakota to the tip of Texas at Brownsville. Very little of it is interstate and it traverses through a variety of communities. Some of them have bypasses that take traffic away from neighborhoods. In other towns, the route goes straight down main streets.
Community acceptance may end up being a bigger hurdle than the technical challenges. The thought of a driverless truck rolling though a small town will cause concern. It may at first require a human driver to hop in the cab on the outskirts of a town to drive it for a few miles to allay these fears. And robotic systems hauling hazardous materials will pose even more questions.
The ability to safely negotiate through U.S. city streets should give the Army all the data it needs to proceed with its driverless convoy programs. And with some 2 million tractor-trailers in the United States, even a small percentage of them equipped with robotic kits would drive down costs for the military.