Within eight years, Torc executives say, they expect their trucks to be able to make this trip on their own. Not just that 45-mile journalistic jaunt, but real trucking on the road and over long distances.
True driverless vehicles are, so far, an unrealized dream. The technology not only promises a more relaxing commute or road trip, but also life-saving safety improvements and economic efficiency.
“We really think it will be within the decade,” says Andrew Culhane, Torc’s Chief Strategy Officer. “But ultimately security dictates the timeline.”
About 5,000 people die each year in crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Over 30 times that number are injured. While professional truckers tend to be safer than other drivers, long-haul truckers in particular put in so many miles that the numbers often catch up to them.
Buoyed by the promise of bettering those safety numbers and driven by the potential for handsome profits, Torc sends a small fleet of trucks from a former Dodge dealership near Lomas Boulevard in Albuquerque to two nearby highways each day to test its technology. driverless.
Although a driver and safety driver are on board every trip, the truck does most of the driving. Norero and Head, for example, work to verify autonomous software observations that no man could do alone and that the two can only approximate together.
“Our sensors look in all directions at all times, so we never have to look left or right. We see and understand this world every time we drive down the road,” Culhane says.
Torc’s tests measure what the company’s algorithm does with all that data. While the basics of accelerating, braking and changing lanes are simple, the act of driving is surprisingly complex.
Humans may not be good at judging distance or speed, but they can process a lot of information at once – sometimes communicating with other drivers with just a glance – and quickly decide how to act.
The self-driving truck isn’t human and can’t pick up some of these nuances, but it’s extremely polished.
“He can’t run close to someone, he can’t forget to be careful, he never forgets the safety distance, he never forgets to look over the shoulder,” says the manager of the Walter Grigg program. “There is no human factor. So there is no discussion of impatience. I don’t feel like it has to happen for no reason.”
Part of that equation is the 2,000+ mile time traveled when a self-driving truck doesn’t stop for food, rest, or the bathroom. He can literally keep trucking. Not accelerating, creating more following distance and avoiding impatient movements keeps the truck out of places on the road where accidents happen more frequently.
With an estimated shortfall of 80,000 drivers according to the American Trucking Association, Torc doesn’t believe its technology will displace any drivers. Finding long-haulers to stay on the road for weeks is getting harder and harder. ATA estimates mean that by the time Torc thinks it will be up and running, there could be over 160,000,000 vacancies.
That promise has moved driverless technology away from cars toward the smaller but profitable freight industry, says Allan Rutter of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
“Given the way the supply chain works now and the freight rates, there’s a tremendous amount of financial incentive to see for this to work,” he says.
While Torc and Daimler Trucks (its majority shareholder as of 2019) focus on building trucks like the Freightliner Cascadia with driverless technology from the ground up to be used without humans on board from day one, Rutter believes that an intermediate step is probable.
“If you can find a way to extend the effective duty hours of a safety driver in an automated truck over 11 hours [allowed by federal regulations]says Rutter, there’s still money to be saved.
“This active driving experience is quite stressful even if you are on the road, driving a long distance on a fairly boring road. You still have a lot of vehicles to control and you need to know where you are and what is happening around you Giving a driver a break while autonomous technology takes over could mean more miles traveled, safer.
But public perception can be a bigger barrier than technology, Rutter says.
“It’s a matter of governments and it’s a matter of other people,” he said. “If you’re on I-40 traveling to Phoenix or somewhere in Arizona, and you’re out there with your family, are you comfortable with the truck that’s next to you and you try to pass without a driver at all?So I think part of that is going to be public acceptance.
For Torc, public acceptance is part of the reason he tests the same routes around Albuquerque every day. The company has amassed a huge database of traffic information and is now looking for occurrences of “corner” or “edge” to assess what the truck decides is the best route if, for example, there is a pedestrian – even a horse, Culhane of Torc thinks – on the highway.
“Strangely enough, pedestrians on the freeway create some of the most interesting situations, as you can imagine,” he says. “And everything from the trucks you might see with tarps blowing off to things falling off the trucks; it all happens quite naturally. We do just enough laps to make sure we see them.
The business model is not for dock-to-dock trucking. Instead, it plans to use a series of dispatch centers to allow self-driving trucks to drop off and pick up trailers just outside of the busiest urban areas. Human drivers will take over while other logistics workers maintain the truck and coordinate the next long-haul trip.
For now, testing is on the agenda. The company strives to find reliable computing power that can fit twice in a cubicle (for redundancy). On a recent outing, as the truck returned from the mountains east of Albuquerque along I-40, the autonomous system beeps twice and shuts off.
With his hands already on the wheel, Norero begins to drive seamlessly as Head Security Chief taps away on his laptop, already communicating with the old dealership’s Mission Control. More data to crunch, more food for the algorithm.