First Glimpse of Autonomous Trucks in Arkansas: Uber Freight

When people find out I write about trucking, they most commonly ask about autonomous technology. Is it really real? How soon before we will see it on the highway next to us?

Well, in short, it's already here. Otto, a newly acquired division of Uber Freight (yes, that Uber), went ahead and delivered the country's first commercial cargo load (of Budweiser) using driverless technology a few weeks ago. You can watch their promo video about it below.

That same Uber Freight just joined the Arkansas Trucking Association, which has prompted the group to officially discuss the prospect and agree to push it up their legislative priority list. This is a big step for the association's board, filled with executives at "traditional" trucking companies.

Ultimately, much of the industry agrees: "It's not a matter of if but when." The real challenge, as my story reports, will be convincing the rest of us that we're okay with it.

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Robotic trucking assessed for state

Division of Uber joins association

By Emma N. Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Uber Freight joined the Arkansas Trucking Association on Thursday -- less than a month after Uber successfully delivered the nation's first commercial cargo load using driverless technology.

The association now has ramped up its discussion of how unmanned commercial vehicles might make their way to Arkansas.

"As an industry we're really curious about how they perceive us and our future," said Shannon Newton, president of the association. "I think it offers us some insight and some access into what's going on."

She said she was "excited" about Uber joining the association and what it might mean for trucking in Arkansas. Uber has applied to 10 state trucking associations around the country but could not be reached for comment.

Uber Freight consists of two arms: a freight brokerage segment matching carriers to cargo; and Otto, an autonomous vehicle technology firm that Uber acquired in August.

In late October, Otto successfully delivered the nation's first commercial cargo load on 120 miles of Colorado highway with the driver seated in the back for most of the trip. He took the wheel to navigate on and off the highway and on smaller streets.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has adopted six levels of vehicle automation, ranging from total human driver control at level 0 to driverless vehicles at level 5. Many vehicles already are at level 1, in which cruise control, lane-centering or automatic deceleration/acceleration can sometimes assist the driver.

Otto's vehicle, like Google's self-driving car, is at level 2, in which the driver can give up control under certain conditions and rely heavily on the vehicle at times. Level 3 is complete automation in some driving scenarios, but the driver must be ready to take control if the automated system requests it. Level 4 means a system functioning at the same total performance of a human driver, but only in certain environments under certain conditions.

"I think it's the future, to some degree," said Doug Voss, associate professor of logistics at the University of Central Arkansas and member of the Arkansas Trucking Association's board. He said the general consensus among the board members who approved Uber's application to join the association is "soon there are going to be automated trucks on the road. The technology will be there before people are ready for it."

Voss said the technology should be completely ready within the next 5-10 years, though public opinion and the regulatory environment likely wouldn't allow for large-scale implementation for another 20-30 years.

"They already have it now," the board's chairman, Butch Rice, said of the technology.

"Their software is so much more advanced than all the other processes necessary to get there," added Rice, chief executive officer and president of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe. "Having to sell that to the public is going to be their biggest hurdle."

"The savings and the potential benefits of the technology are pretty astounding really," Voss said of the potential fuel savings and the opportunity to make trucks safer with tools such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication. "Safety for us is always the top priority we consider."

One of those technologies -- platooning -- is when multiple trucks are electronically linked so they can follow closely behind one another safely. It saves fuel by reducing aerodynamic drag, and can also allow drivers to take turns sleeping. In 2015 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a team of two platooned vehicles can reduce fuel use by up to 6.4 percent.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication consists of wireless transmission of information between vehicles on the road about things like speed, position and traffic information.

While a handful of states have passed legislation allowing for regulation of this kind of autonomous vehicle technology, Arkansas has not. However, Uber Freight's application has given the association more of a reason to discuss it seriously.

Newton said Uber Freight is interested in exploring the use of its technology with Arkansas companies.

"In order to have that conversation, we need to shuffle it up the priority list within our organizational topics," she said. "We're going to have this opportunity now. They're going to come in and want us to at least entertain legislation that would be advancing automation and autonomous vehicles, in-cab technology, etc. We need to decide, are we agreeable to that?

"We've got to be ready to talk about that and decide whether our members are willing to engage on those issues," she said. And in talking to board members, she said she believed they were.

Voss said that over his year and a half on the board, this was the first time he had heard a conversation about the topic.

"The issue is so new that I don't even necessarily think that the state knows how to attack it yet," he said. What exactly the association will work on has yet to be determined, but the conversation has started.

"We'd prefer to have a seat at the table rather than sitting on the side," Rice said about the new technology. "I think that's the biggest part of it for us."

Business on 11/12/2016