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Driverless trucks show promise for the American supply chain, a possible threat to trucker jobs

One day soon you may be driving on the Interstate and pull past a truck, and notice there’s no one driving it. A similar thing took place late last month. That’s when a San Diego computer tech company called TuSimple announced what it said was the world’s first semi-truck run on public roads with no driver in the cab. KPBS Science and technology reporter Thomas Fudge tells us how robotrucks could strengthen the American supply chain… and maybe threaten the livelihoods of truckers.

Professor Henrik Christensen is the director of robotics at UC San Diego, and he stands next to what looks like a golf cart that's been delivering mail at UCSD ... without a driver to guide it.

Tall, trim and spectacled, Chistensen speaks with the accent of his once-native Denmark. And he’s a good evangelist for driverless technology who says children, born today, will never have to learn to drive a car.

But he’s not focused just on the needs of daily commuters. Christensen says the new technology, paired with America’s overloaded supply chains and a shortage of truck drivers have put driverless trucks in the sites of a lot of auto and computer tech companies.

“We have this massive need for getting more out of the ports. Getting it on the roads. So we’ve seen multiple new companies come up that are actually working on this technology. Not just TuSimple. Aurora. GM. Tesla is promising this,” Christensen said.

The San Diego company he mentions, TuSimple, announced late last month what it said made the world’s first semi-truck run on public roads without a driver in the cab or human intervention … done with its technology. It was another step toward fully automating freight hauling in trucks.

It’s something that promises to strengthen the American supply chain for products and materials. It may also threaten the livelihoods of a lot of truck drivers.

TuSimple’s driverless run last month, from a railyard in Tucson, Arizona to a distribution center in Phoenix, was a first for the company. But working with partners like UPS, it is already delivering goods with it’s autonomous truck computer programs, provided a human safety driver is present. TuSimple's Chief Financial Officer is Pat Dillon .

Henrik 2.jpg
Mike Damron
Robotics professor Henrik Christensen at UCSD stands in front of a driverless vehicle that's been delivering mail on campus. Dec 7, 2021.

“The vision of TuSimple is that from a major freight location like a port, like a railyard, we can take our custom-built trucks that will have no driver in it to take a journey that could be a hundred miles or a thousand miles and go from one freight location to another freight location,” Dillon said.

TuSimple went public in April. Dillon said their initial public offering, or IPO, raised $1 billion in cash. The markets put the company’s value at $8.5 billion.

The idea that trucks would be the spearpoint of self-driving technology makes sense to Christensen. He says driving on highways is the easiest application for self-driving vehicles. And given the choice between trusting a human or trusting a robot at the wheel of a truck, the professor’s view is pretty clear.

“Drivers get tired from these long hauls. And at the same time ... when you have autonomous driving trucks, they actually save fuel,” he said. “It’s no surprise, really, but when you think about it computers are better drivers than people.”

Truckers today see it coming

Trucks park side by side in many rows at this truck stop in Otay Mesa, where truckers stop for fuel, a shower and some rest. One trucker who lives in Bakersfield said he was waiting for permission to enter Mexico, where he will deliver his cargo.

Juan Martinez.jpg
Truck driver Juan Martinez, from Bakersfield, sits in his cab while stopping for lunch at an Otay Mesa truck stop. Jan 5, 2022.

He and the other drivers at the truck stop seem resigned to the future automation of the trucking industry. But they don’t share the view that robotrucks can do their jobs better.

“I think it's the way the industry is going to go because of the lack of drivers we do have in it. But I don’t particularly care for it,” said Ron Caplette, from Pennsylvania. He said he’s been driving a truck for 30 years.

“I just think it’s going to be unsafe for a while." he said. "You know, not being able to deal with the traffic conditions and the weather conditions. There are too many variables out there that maybe a computer won’t be able to adjust to the same way.”

About 10 miles away, students working to become registered as truck drivers listen to an instructor at the United Truck Driving Driving school in Mission Valley. The school training coordinator is Phil Harris, and he says he thinks automation is great, to a point.

He spoke of a trucking company called Werner, based in Omaha, Nebraska, that already employs a lot of automation in its fleet.

“Werner trucks will (automatically) stay in their lanes. It will turn on the brakes by itself.” Harris said. “And it’s great for us drivers. There are times when we have a lapse of attention. We get distracted. And when you’re hauling weight, you need something else to help you out. So if you can set a car length distance, that could be good.”

Will automation get rid of truck drivers? No way, Harris says. But it’ll change the nature of the job, making it necessary for them to understand the technology.

“How are you going to maintain that? How are you going to upkeep it? Then if it breaks down,” he said, “you’re going to need somebody in there as a technician, probably. So I can see us being called navigators, pilots, technicians, overseers, whatever! We might not be called the driver but that’s why we’ll always be in that truck.”

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Phil Harris is the training coordinator for United Truck Driving School in San Diego. He sits at his desk in the school's Mission Valley office. Jan 5, 2022

The driverless technology for trucks still needs some attention, according to TuSimple's Dillon.

Driverless trucks show promise for the American supply chain, a possible threat to trucker jobs

Speaker 1: (00:00)

One day soon, you may be driving on the interstate and pull past a truck and notice there's no one driving it. A similar thing took place late last month. That's when a San Diego company called too simple, announced what it called the world's first semi truck run on public roads with no driver in the cab. K P B a science and technology reporter. Thomas fudge tells us how robo trucks could strengthen the American supply chain and maybe threaten the livelihoods of truckers

Speaker 2: (00:31)

Robotics. Professor Henrick Christensen stands next to what looks like a golf cart. That's been delivering mail at UC San Diego without a driver to guy. I did computer program, driverless vehicles like this one are becoming more common and Christensen says the new technology coupled with overloaded supply lines and a shortage of truck drivers are putting driverless trucks in the sites of a lot of companies. We have this

Speaker 3: (00:58)

Massive need for getting more out the ports, getting it on the roads. That's where we are seeing these new. So we've seen multiple new companies come up that are actually working on this technology. Not only too simple, Aurora GM, uh, Tesla promising this,

Speaker 2: (01:14)

But let's stick with that. San Diego startup simple it's driverless run last month from a rail yard in Tucson to a distribu center in Phoenix was a first for the company and they say a first for the industry. But working with partners like ups, the company is already delivering goods with its autonomous trucks provided a human safety driver is present. Pat Dillon is the chief financial officer of two simple.

Speaker 4: (01:40)

The vision of two simple is that from a major freight, uh, location, like a port like a rail yard, uh, we can take our custom built, uh, trucks that will have no driver in it to take a journey that could be a hundred miles or it could be a thousand miles and go from one freight location to another freight location. The

Speaker 2: (02:02)

Idea that robo trucks would be the spear point of self-driving technology makes sense to U C S D professor Christensen. He says, driving on highways is the easiest application for self-driving vehicles. And given the choice between trusting a human or trusting a robot at the wheel of a truck, the professor's view is pretty clear. The drive

Speaker 3: (02:23)

Get tired from these long hauls. Uh, and at the same time, you might not be aware of this, but when you have autonomous driving trucks, they actually save fuel. It's no surprise, really, but if you think about it, computer are actually better drivers than people,

Speaker 2: (02:41)

Trucks park side by side, in many roads at this truck, stop in O time Mesa, truckers, stop here for fuel a shower and some rest. Some of these drivers are resigned to the future of automation in the trucking industry, but they don't share the view that computers are better drivers than they are. Um, I think it's the

Speaker 5: (02:59)

Way the industry's gonna go because of the lack of drivers that we do have in it. But I don't particularly care

Speaker 2: (03:04)

For it. Ron caplet, who hails from Pennsylvania says he's been driving a truck for 30 years. I

Speaker 5: (03:10)

Just think it's gonna be unsafe for a while. You know, they, you know, not being able to, you know, deal with the traffic Condit, the weather conditions, there's too many variables out here that maybe a computer won't be able to adjust to the same way. It just seems like it won't be able to adjust. Like we can adjust. They're gonna ask you

Speaker 2: (03:28)

If you need a professional about 10 miles away, students working to become registered truck drivers, listen to an instructor at the United truck driving school and mission valley. The school training coordinator is Phil Harris, who says he thinks automation is great. Will it replace all truckers? No way he says, but it'll change the nature of the job, making it necessary for truck drivers to understand the technology. We're gonna have someone in

Speaker 6: (03:54)

There as a technician, probably. So I can see us being called pilots, navigators, technicians, either whatever. Maybe we won't be called a driver, but that's why we'll always be

Speaker 2: (04:03)

In that truck. Driverless technology still needs some attention. Again, here's pat Dillon of too simple things like

Speaker 4: (04:09)

Redundant breaking and steering so that, uh, you always have the ability to control the vehicle. Even if there is some type of AEN, uh, a system degradation,

Speaker 2: (04:19)

One student at the United truck driving school, Antoine Rackley says if the job of being a truck driver changes, that's okay with him

Speaker 7: (04:27)

Advancement. I'm trying to stay on top of, so it's, you know, you, you either keep up or you get left behind. So if that's the way the world change and you gotta change it with it.

Speaker 1: (04:36)

Joining me is K P V S science and technology reporter, Tom and fudge, and Tom, welcome to the program.

Speaker 2: (04:42)

Hi Maureen.

Speaker 1: (04:44)

Now the first truck run completely without a driver took place last month in Arizona. And in your report, ups is already using some driverless trucks.

Speaker 2: (04:56)

They are according to, uh, my sources of two simple, which is a San Diego ago, startup, which started up in 2015. They have a partnership with ups and they are delivering goods, you know, as we speak with automated trucks, but it's not entirely automated. There's still a steering wheel in the cab of the truck. And there is a driver. There are sort of a safety driver, I guess you would say.

Speaker 1: (05:23)

So what's the aim is, is the two simple company planning to put a fleet of trucks on the road without any drivers at all, or are they planning to keep it the way it is now to keep backup drivers in the truck?

Speaker 2: (05:36)

Well, there will be backup drivers for a while. When I asked, uh, the CFO of too simple, sort of what their goal is, he told me they want to be selling driverless trucks in about five years. And I think their goal is to have trucks run without a driver in them, until that is something that is acceptable and safe. And there are still some issues that they need to iron out. Uh, one thing he talked about was redundant breaking systems, just to make sure that the breaks still work, if there's some degradation in the existing system. And so there's still some safety concerns. There is also a li and this is the case, not just with trucks, but with driverless vehicles all, all together, uh, when a driverless vehicle gets into an accident, whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the owner of the vehicle? Is it the fault of the computer system? So there are still some stuff they need, some things that they need to work out.

Speaker 1: (06:36)

What is the underlying reason for the development of robo trucks without drivers? Is it for the trunking companies to save money? Is it to cut down on accidents? What, why do they wanna do this?

Speaker 2: (06:49)

Well, I think both of those things are true. Although we should point out that, uh, these computerized trucks are going to be quite expensive. I can't give you a figure, but, uh, they will save a lot of money on labor because it won't require at least the way they look at it. It won't require a driver to be there. So it should be a cost savings. And, uh, a robotics professor that I spoke to at U C S D said to me, let's face it. Computers are better drivers than he humans are. Now. That's not an opinion that all truckers agree with, but that's what he said.

Speaker 1: (07:24)

Is there a benefit for the public though? Tom are, I don't know, prices supposed to come down. Is there any reason that the public should wanna see these driverless trucks?

Speaker 2: (07:34)

Well, I think, uh, we have seen in recent years, there is a shortage of truck drivers, and that means that our supply lines get bogged down with automated trucks. You're automating a system where there's a labor shortage, which is what industry very often does. And, uh, when we get into this business, uh, the supply lines will move more quickly. There won't be as great a need for drivers eventually that will get products to consumers more quickly, it'll get, uh, materials to builders more quickly, and there will be less in terms of labor cost.

Speaker 1: (08:15)

And what do the truckers unions have to say about driverless trucks?

Speaker 2: (08:19)

Well, well, I didn't interview anybody with, uh, the unions, but I did dig up a statement from the Teamsters union. And, uh, as you might expect, they are not crazy about it. Uh, it says right here at the top, autonomous trucks threatened the livelihoods of millions of truckers across the country. It goes on to say, this would be devastating in this well paying field where more than 93% of the workers have less than a college degree. So the Teamsters are clearly, if not opposed to it very concerned about it. And they are lobbying the government to, if not slow down the system, at least make sure it's very well regulated.

Speaker 1: (08:58)

Despite the optimism you heard from the truck driving students that you spoke with, this does sound like it will decrease the need for drivers. And can you tell us again what the timeframe is that too simple and other companies like it would like to see for the automation of the industry?

Speaker 2: (09:15)

Well, what the timeframe is when this is going to happen, kind of depends on who you talk to. A couple of truck drivers. I talked to at a truck stop in O time Mesa expected it to come in. About 10 years, the CFO of two simple said that they hoped to be selling their trucks to company is like ups. In about five years, the job of a truck driver is going to change and they are going to have to start to understand this technology better. What their role will be is kind of hard to say at this point. Um, maybe they won't be drivers. Maybe they will be computer technicians, but the guy I talked to at the school there will always be in his view. There will always have to be a person in the cab of that truck.

Speaker 1: (10:02)

And I've been speaking with KPBS science and technology reporter, Thomas fudge, and Tom, thank you so much.

Speaker 2: (10:08)

Thank you very much, Maureen.

“Things like redundant braking and steering,” he said. “So you always have the ability to control the vehicle, even if there is a system degradation. Making sure you have a supercomputer that controls all elements of the sensor input and actually controlling the vehicle.”

And if the nature of being a truck driver changes, Antowain Rackley, one of the students at the United Truck Driving School, said that’s alright with him.

“I’m always open to learning. And all new advances, I’m trying to stay on top of,” Rackley said. “You either keep up, or you get left behind. So if that’s the way the world changes, you've got to change with it.”