The Disappearing Truck Driver? Not So Fast.

How truck tech firm Peloton is developing autonomous platooning that keeps humans in the driver’s seat… For now.

Story by Jordan G. Teicher; Photos by Christopher Doody.

The first few times Marty Taft’s semi-autonomous tractor-trailer closed in on the truck ahead of him, he kept his foot hovering just over the brake. He didn’t have to keep it there. The brakes and acceleration were linked in Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication with the front vehicle, but he did so anyway — half from instinct and half from nerves.

On the small video screen mounted to the top of Taft’s windshield, he eyed a view of the road ahead of the lead truck, 250 feet away. Then his own truck gradually narrowed the gap to a distance of 50 or 60 feet. If Taft tried this maneuver on the road without the V2V link, he’d be considered dangerous.

“When you get to 100 feet, you feel a little bit uncomfortable at first. You know the computer’s going to do it right but you’re closing in at closer distance than you’d normally follow,” he said.

“Everyone’s going to have to realize that this is a reliable system…”

This was a year ago, and at the time, this process, known industry-wide as platooning, was new to Taft. Allowing his truck to get within 50 feet of another contradicted every safety rule he’d learned when he got his commercial driver’s license 10 years earlier. Letting it happen automatically just made it even more unnatural. But as a test driver and senior technician at the automated vehicle technology start-up Peloton, which wants to redefine what’s safely possible in a truck, it’s his job to push the boundaries. Nowadays, when Taft is out with the company’s three other test drivers platooning at the historic Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View, California, or on limited-access highways, he keeps his foot comfortably on the floor.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our system. That comes with time. Everyone’s going to have to realize that this is a reliable system,” Taft said.

Test driver Marty Taft used his commercial driver’s license for the first time behind the wheel of a truck that can drive itself.

That system, which is still in development, is a kit of vehicle systems that uses 5.9 GHz Dedicated Short Range Communication to synchronize the braking and acceleration of two platooning trucks. After the company’s cloud-based Network Operation Center determines highway conditions are ideal and both drivers agree, via their windshield screens, to link, they will be able to follow at close distance. This mutually assured driving concept has proven to reduce wind resistance and, therefore, increase fuel efficiency by 10% for the rear truck and 4.5% for the lead truck (2013 North American Council for Freight Efficiency test). With the help of forward-looking radar, trucks equipped with Peloton platooning technology can also react to obstacles in a hundredth of a second — far faster than the one or two seconds it takes an unassisted human driver. If a car cuts in between two platooning vehicles, the trucks will automatically distance themselves and return control to the driver.

Before he worked at Peloton, Taft tested electric car components at Tesla. He got his commercial driver’s license while he was still employed there because he thought he might

switch careers but he didn’t end up using it until he started at Peloton. Since last January, he’s learned much of what he knows about truck driving while operating a semi-autonomous vehicle.

For an upcoming generation of drivers, their first experiences behind the wheel will soon be a lot like Taft’s. It will still be some time before the technology is widely used, as regulation and legislation lags. But eventually, industry experts say platooning will save money, energy, and (most importantly) lives. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94% of road crashes are the result of human factors. Today, a select group of engineers and test drivers, including Taft, are the first to experience the future of freighting, one in which humans will still have a vital role, but human error, increasingly, will not.

With Peleton, autonomous technology serves to assist a driver who must remain as aware as ever of what’s happening on the road. Other companies making strides in this emerging sphere of the freighting industry, however, are striving for a different kind of autonomy, one in which drivers act more as a fallback than a default.

In August, Uber acquired one such company, Otto, a start-up led by 15 former Google employees. Otto is working toward a future in which drivers can literally take a back seat — in the sleeper cabin, perhaps, for a nap — while computers accelerate, brake, and steer entirely on their own.

Last year, in a dramatic demonstration at the top of the Hoover Dam, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) showed off its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States. Equipped with Daimler’s Highway Pilot technology, the truck can drive itself on roads where lane markings are clearly detectable by camera, but the driver must be present at all times and ready to take over in a matter of seconds if road conditions shift or a lane change is needed. In March of this year, Daimler introduced Highway Pilot Connect, which combines its self-driving innovation with platooning technology.

When the Freightliner Inspiration drove across the dam last year, Jim Martin, manager of vehicle performance at DTNA, was in the passenger seat. For a few days before that, to make sure everything was running smoothly, he and three other Daimler employees tested the truck on a few public roads near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the first time he’d driven the Inspiration, he said, but after 15 minutes he felt as comfortable as he would in any other truck.

“It feels like a normal truck. You still have pedals and a steering wheel. It’s simply a couple additional buttons on the steering wheel, where if you as a driver choose to enable Highway Pilot you can do so. It’s as simple as turning it on and taking your hands off the wheel and taking your feet off the pedal. The system takes over,” he said.

Derek Rotz, Director of Advanced Engineering at DTNA, says drivers still need to remain alert and “in a prepared state to overtake the vehicle” when the autonomous technology is enabled, but they could use their newfound freedom to perform “logistical work,” including answering requests from dispatch, identifying their next load, and coordinating pickup and delivery times.

The ability to do logistical work behind the wheel may be a new development, but autonomous technology is not without precedent for Daimler and other truck companies.

Last year, Daimler introduced Detroit Assurance, a suite of safety systems comprising several features already common in the industry, for its Freightliner Cascadia and Cascadia Evolution trucks. It includes a radar-enabled active brake assist, which warns a driver when a potential collision is detected and slows the truck automatically if the driver doesn’t take action. It also includes adaptive cruise control, which allows the truck to automatically adjust its speed to maintain a safe following distance behind other vehicles. The system has an optional camera system, which can track a truck’s position in a lane. If a truck going over 37 mph crosses a lane without a turn signal on, a warning will sound.

“If autonomous technology reaches a point where it’s 100% reliable, the argument for putting a driver in the seat, at least from a fleet’s standpoint, is going to get pretty shaky,” he said.

In the short term, said trucking journalist and transportation futurist Jack Roberts, life for drivers behind the wheel of semi-autonomous vehicles like Daimler’s will improve but, fundamentally, not change all that much. Looking ahead though, he thinks that fully autonomous technology could be commercially viable sooner than most think, by 2040 or 2050, and that at that point, the employment landscape will start to look a lot different for drivers.

“If autonomous technology reaches a point where it’s 100% reliable, the argument for putting a driver in the seat, at least from a fleet’s standpoint, is going to get pretty shaky,” he said.

Ted Scott, Director of Engineering at American Trucking Associations, thinks drivers aren’t going anywhere, and believes autonomous technology should be seen as “a recruiting tool instead of a problem.”

“Hopefully this kind of technology will encourage young drivers into the industry rather than dissuade them from joining. We don’t think that this is a driverless truck issue. It’s not going to happen. It’s like taking a pilot out of an airplane — it’s not going to happen,” he said.

DAVE MERCER WAS A TRUCKING VETERAN by the time he found work as a driver alongside Marty Taft at Peloton. Unlike Taft, he began driving trucks 30 years ago, delivering edible goods, including candy, ice cream and food for McDonald’s and Chipotle. In the five years before he moved to Peloton, he was a fleet supervisor at Martin-Brower, a distributor for thousands of “quick service restaurants.”

Mercer is also a certified National Safety Council instructor, who for years has helped new drivers learn to drive responsibly. When he started at Peloton in November 2015, he said, he approached the technology with the same sort of caution he’d approach a ride with a new driver in one of his training sessions.

Sometimes when you first get into a truck with a brand new driver, you have no idea who he is. With [autonomous technology] you’re doing the same thing. You’re trying to find out what this driver can do,” he said.

Today, Mercer is confident the system can save lives. But when he talks to former colleagues about his new job, he said, they ask him more about the impact of autonomy on their livelihoods than on their lives. He tells them not to worry about their jobs, which he believes are secure for the foreseeable future, but rather to get excited about the benefits of automated technology, just as he did when he first started reading about it and decided he wanted to experience it for himself.

“I wanted to get into automation and be a part of this whole new experience before I retired. I wanted to come here and watch this thing grow and be a part of it and see it actually implemented,” he said.

When that day comes, Mercer said, drivers should approach autonomous technology as a tool for doing their jobs even better, and, moreover, an opportunity to enjoy the road more than ever before.

“You have to be alert, you have to be aware of anything that can happen. But you should also sit back and relax, because it’s a new experience and you want to take it all in,” Mercer said.