This year Kenworth turns 100 years old.
That’s quite a milestone– not just for a company that cut its teeth putting trucks on the frontlines of American military theaters, but for the entire trucking industry. It marks a century of moving the nation’s goods and bringing home the expression, “if you got it, then a truck brought it.”
Just two years ago– this reporter was invited to tour the Kenworth factory. It marked the first time they had ever allowed a video crew into their factories. The factory experience was something like a light show serenaded by an unending reverberation of purposeful machines building the machine. Human beings danced purposefully in and out of this syncretic rhythm of Deus Ex Machina.
But things they are a-changing: Aurora Innovation just announced they are one step closer to having their trucks go fully driverless. “Over the last 18 months, Aurora has released dozens of capabilities through six Aurora Driver Beta updates. They have incrementally increased the Aurora Driver’s autonomous performance, safety and reliability in pilot hauls for companies like FedEx, Werner Enterprises, Schneider and Uber Freight,” according to Freightwaves.
Aurora partners with traditional truck manufacturers like Kenworth and Vovlo. But one wonders if even the sparky rhythm of the Kenworth factorires can pirouette quickly enough to keep up with the industry’s revolution. And what will happen to the drivers for which the traditional trucks are destined?
Modestly, this source anticipates a coming Golden Hour for drivers. There will be a long season in which Tesla, Kodiak Robotics, and others will need human monitors to guide and oversee driverless trucks.
The title is “Human Safety Monitors.” And it’s an interesting, if perhaps worrisome position:
The truck and its human occupants remain subject to all the usual regulatory requirements (FMCSRs, etc.) governing heavy trucks, but there are few rules relating to the standards and qualifications of either the person in the left seat (usually called the driver), or the functionality and capability of the sensors, computers and artificial intelligence that control the truck.
The Department of Transportation’s autonomous vehicle guidance documents, “Preparing for the Future of Transportation Automated Vehicles 3.0,” and previous versions, speak only to the need to have a “trained commercial driver” behind the wheel at all times. The term “trained” isn’t defined. (Emphasis added)
Nevertheless, it may be hoped that this marriage of man and machine will facilitate easier hours and safer working conditions for drivers. This hope is not entirely without a foundation: Tesla vehicle drivers are already nine times safer than the national average.
And some sources suggest that there will be an even greater need for professional drivers, “some analysts who think that the increased efficiency of trucking will increase demand and require a more significant number of professional drivers, especially during the start and end of complex trucking runs,” says Rosen Ohr Law.
More broadly, the public will benefit from the implementation of greater automation in trucks; from their unemotional assessment of situations to their split-second ability to sight an animal on the road and react– lives will be saved.
Regardless of the adaptations of the trucking industry, almost all metrics suggest that the pivot is still a ways down the road– And at least by the light we walk by at Blue Eagle we agree.