NACV shows trucks without drivers won't happen anytime soon

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Concern over the future of truck driving jobs are frequently cited by labor unions and other groups when discussing the possibility of self-driving trucks. It is a key reason legislation moving through Congress to promote the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles does not include commercial vehicles.

The moment may one day come a long time from now when truck drivers are no longer needed. For anyone thinking that may be imminent, however, they have not been listen to today’s truck makers discuss their latest designs.

Across the sprawling exhibit hall of last week’s inaugural North American Commercial Vehicle (NACV) show in Atlanta, the truck makers in attendance each touted the fuel economy and technological advancements of their product lineups.

Another common refrain was just how much time and and effort has gone into working with drivers as they have created these models. 

For Volvo Trucks, development of the updated VNR and VNL models included about 2,000 interviews, officials said. When Mack Trucks launched its new Anthem model in September, it touted a new dashboard that moves common controls closer to the driver. It also added more functionality to the steering wheel at the request of fleets.

In the case of Navistar, its latest models included working with truckers to create a vehicle “drivers really want to drive,” said Denny Mooney, vice president of global engineering. Great efforts were made to design new mirrors so truckers don’t have to turn their heads quite as much. The result, Navistar said, is less fatigue over the course of a long shift of driving.

Not to be outdone, the next generation of the Freightliner Cascadia, first unveiled last year, offers a driver’s lounge that includes more personal cargo space, as well as options such as a larger microwave cabinet, larger refrigerator, and sturdy swivel bracket that can hold up to a 26-inch television.

Though PACCAR units Perterbilt Motors and Kenworth Trucks did not attend NACV, the investment in truckers was apparent earlier this summer as the parent company unveiled its 12-speed automated transmission. A key feature is the column-mounted shifter.

“The column-mounted shifter was designed based on in-depth studies of driver behavior and ergonomics. This new design also allowed us to improve on the usability of our dash by eliminating engine brake control switches,” said Scott Newhouse, Peterbilt's chief engineer.

That is all far different than the image of the Google car with no steering wheel that so many in the general public immediately associate when they hear autonomous driving. Some of the confusion was on display at last month’s Senate hearing, when it seemed for some a light bulb went on when they heard the future of truck driving being compared with today's airline pilots.

While that has long been discussed within trucking industry circles, word remains slow to get out to the general public.

It remains apparent the technological development within trucking will lead to more active safety systems, and the launch of platooning systems, likely before the end of the decade.

That does not change the fact truck drivers will be needed. While some of their day-to-day duties may change, the idea of no one in the driver’s seat remains very far off.

 

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