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Autonomous vehicles: lessons learned and the road to widespread adoption

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Autonomous vehicle technologies have been around for years. You can see some of them in machinery such as agriculture and paving equipment, as well as automobiles such as passenger vehicles and even heavy-duty trucks.

Back in 2016, a project known as the Colorado beer run showcased the possibilities of vehicle autonomy in the trucking industry. A human drove a tractor-trailer loaded with Budweiser beer onto I-25. The driver then put the truck into self-driving mode before retiring to the sleeper. That truck operated autonomously for roughly 3 hours and 130 miles, right down to the braking and turn signaling.

“Just from looking at this project, we know these types of technologies are already close to prime time,” said Dan Murray, senior vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), keynote speaker at AEM’s recently held member education webinar on autonomous vehicles.

Widespread adoption is of course the ultimate goal, but companies need to prepare for the investments that are needed in their organizations and in our infrastructure.


ATRI has done extensive research in the area of autonomous vehicle technology adoption. Motor carriers and drivers share many of the same desires and concerns. At the top of the list are upfront investment and insurance premiums.

“Autonomous equipment has a high upfront cost,” Murray said. “It’s typical to spend $130,000 for a tractor today. But a tractor with autonomous technologies will easily cost $185,000 to $200,000. This means that, ultimately, the cost to transport goods is going to be higher. If a motor carrier can’t pass that cost onto its customer, what real benefit is in it for them?”

Something similar can be said about insurance premiums. According to Murray, an investment in autonomous technologies that make vehicles safer does not translate to reduced premiums. So again, the motor carrier or driver (owner/operator) sees no immediate financial benefit to making that investment.

“Additionally, trial lawyers are drooling over this environment,” Murray added. U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows that roughly 89% of critical crash factors are associated with human factors. The remaining 11% are vehicle and component-related faults.

“With autonomous vehicles, it will probably be a flipflop,” Murray suggested. “You’ll likely see changes in the model of litigation, but litigation itself is not going away. There are some opportunities to improve safety with autonomous technologies, but do not assume litigation will go the way of the dinosaur.”

Another financial factor standing in the way of adoption is the fact that there will still be driver costs. The days of fully autonomous, driverless vehicles are far down the road. Plus, drivers still have a long list of inspection and reporting tasks that must be completed on a routine basis.

One other financial deterrent is the fact that no tax credits exist for autonomous technology investment — at least not yet.

“The good news is that the U.S. DOT may be contemplating tax credits for implementing some of these technologies,” Murray pointed out. “It’s hard to tell if Congress would ultimately end up authorizing such credits. But the fact that this is even being considered is a positive indication.”



While challenges may stand in the way of widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technologies, they have been making their mark in off-road applications for several years now.

The first autonomous testing began in Japan in 1990. However, the process actually began with the release of the Field Management Software (FMS) for mines in the late 1980s, and it drove the subsequent development of Komatsu’s autonomous platform.

The inaugural commercial deployment took place in Chile in 2007, and a second system was launched a year later at a Western Australia-based iron ore mining operation. Finally, in 2013, Komatsu introduced the world’s first dozer with fully automatic blade control.

The lessons learned from those efforts eventually led to the first North American deployment in 2016. By 2018, Komatsu had moved over 2 billion tons, with 130 fully autonomous mining trucks running across seven operational sites (six of which are fully autonomous sites). As of June 2020, the numbers jumped to to 3 billion tons moved by 251 trucks, and the fleet still maintained a perfect safety record with no incidents as of that time.

Caterpillar has also embraced autonomous vehicle technologies. The company had 276 autonomous trucks in operation have driven over 42 million miles without a lost-time injury, as of late 2020. In addition, Caterpillar has doubled the amount it has hauled autonomously since reaching the 1 billion-ton mark in November of 2018.

As of late 2020, autonomous vehicles held a market share of less than 1% of total construction equipment sales worldwide. However, given global equipment sales are projected to grow 2.5% each year until 2022, coupled with the exponential growth in adoption of AVs, the market share is expected to double in size in the next couple of years.

Autonomous heavy haulers are already in use in mining in several countries, with automated agricultural and forestry equipment currently being developed as well. While a combination of GPS and other location tracking sensors, image sensors and telematics assist John Deere vehicles to navigate fields today, the company still can’t truly replicate everything a human would see and feel sitting in the tractor cab. The determining factors here are farmer perception and added value. This will remain the case until more tasks, and not just movement, become automated.

Meanwhile, the forestry sector has seen limited progress with automation, largely due to working conditions being over considerably larger areas than those experienced by the other sectors. Work sites are often in remote areas, on steep slopes, and in very rugged and variable terrain. In these remote areas, there are generally no cell towers and no Wi-Fi, and communication is currently expensive with limited bandwidth. The next generation of very large fleets of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, however, is expected to address this problem.

In addition, construction contractors are applying self-driving machinery to do repetitive tasks, such as pouring concrete, bricklaying, welding and even demolition. Excavation and other prep work is also being completed by autonomous or semi-autonomous bulldozers, which can ready a jobsite with the help of a human programmer to exact specifications.


Differential GPS represents one of the more promising autonomous technologies today, according to Murray. Consider the fact that GPS on the typical smartphone is fairly accurate with a resolution of roughly 10 feet. “You can’t see what lane you’re in, but you can certainly see what road you’re on,” Murray said. “With differential GPS, a correction signal gets you down to just a couple of centimeters. If you add that to an autonomous system, you suddenly have an all-weather fighter, which is really important in northern states.”

Murray is especially excited about camera monitoring systems. “The U.S. DOT has exempted side-view mirrors on trucks and large vehicles if you have video mirrors,” Murray said. “Not only does that technology give drivers a wider field of view and improved safety, but a vehicle can also get 1-2% fuel economy benefit by removing the big, obsolete side-view mirrors.”

As Murray noted, most tractor-trailers in operation today do not employ ADAS technologies, but the list is as follows (Below percentages are approximate.)

ATRI recently completed an extensive study where motor carriers and drivers were asked which technologies they wanted to consider adopting. Automated emergency braking topped the list at 16%, followed closely by forward collision warning and road-facing cameras at 14%. Lane detection warning was cited by roughly 10% of those surveyed.

There is an important distinction to be made regarding motor carrier attitudes vs. driver attitudes.

“While the motor carriers are pretty excited about many of these systems, that’s not so much the case with the drivers,” Murray pointed out. Many tractor-trailer drivers are in their mid-40s or older. This demographic tends to be extra cautious where technology is concerned. Some are even downright cynical.

“There is a lot of education, promotion and awareness that needs to happen in order to convince drivers that these technologies are not going to put them out of a job,” Murray said. “These technologies are just going to make the driver experience easier, better and safer.”

Both drivers and motor carriers also need a little convincing where investment and ROI are concerned. If some of those hurdles could be cleared, autonomous adoption could accelerate in coming years.



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