By Russ Banham
Few things in life are certain, but one of them appears to be the inevitably of self-driving cars. Although some disparage this possibility for potential safety and loss of personal freedom reasons, others can’t wait to hop into a Tesla or Waymo and say, “Home, please.”
This latter group may get their wish sooner rather than later as wider availability of mobile 5G network services may shorten the wait. 5G—the fifth generation of wireless technology—promises transmission speeds up to 20 times faster than current 4G platforms, in addition to lower latency (the time lag between the initiation and reception of communications). 5G networks are touted as having latency rates of under a millisecond. This near-instantaneous delivery of information can be crucial to the rapid responsiveness needed by autonomous cars and trucks when confronting an imminent danger like a giant pothole—or a pedestrian.
“You’re getting less latency, which is important in an environment where a remotely-piloted vehicle like a truck is getting a substantial volume of collision-avoidance information from sensors onboard the vehicle and from the surrounding environment, such as weather reports, driving conditions, pedestrians in the road, and so on,” says Steve Viscelli, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. “The speed at which all this data flows to a remote human pilot operating an autonomous truck is fundamental to avoiding a collision.”
Maximum Speed Ahead
Autonomous cars and trucks are those in which automated driving systems (ADS) do some, most, or all the driving. There are five levels of autonomous driving, as outlined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These levels capture a progressively increasing use of ADS in driving a vehicle, with Level 4 describing a vehicle that is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions, and Level 5 describing a vehicle capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions.
When Levels 4 and 5 will occur in great numbers on the road has long been a matter of debate, though most experts believe that fully-autonomous commercial vehicles like trucks will predate the debut of entirely self-driven cars. While some trucks will involve passive drivers, others will be completely unmanned; in such cases, a combination of autonomous driving technologies and remote piloting by humans will control the vehicle.
“The first autonomous vehicles without humans on board are already widely in use in the construction and agriculture industries, but large numbers of unmanned trucks will be on highways and others roads before we see fully self-driving cars,” says Kartik Tawiri, cofounder and CTO of Starsky Robotics, a leading manufacturer of autonomous trucks.
Sharing this perspective is Viscelli, author of the book, The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “Fully autonomous trucks that are unmanned and remotely piloted will come sooner than autonomous cars,” he explains. “There are just too many economic benefits to be gained from autonomy for the trucking industry to ignore.”
Chief among these is the precipitous decline in people willing to drive trucks long-distance; the American Trucking Associations (ATA) posits an urgent need for 60,000 drivers now and far more in the future. “The biggest problem in trucking is a dire shortage of long-haul drivers,” says Tawiri. “It’s a fun thing to do in your early 20s, but after that no one wants to spend their life in a metal box roaming the country. The turnover of drivers is huge.”
Autonomous trucks would solve the human labor dilemma, assuming legislators and regulators are willing to designate a dedicated lane on highways to accommodate driverless trucks. Aside from addressing the protracted driver shortage, the concept would increase safety: By limiting the use of autonomous trucks to a single lane and restricting non-autonomous vehicles from driving in this lane, the risk of a collision with non-autonomous vehicles is greatly reduced.
A designated lane also fits well with current autonomous technology: Driverless trucks can be remotely controlled through geo-fencing, which involves the use of global positioning (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to create a virtual perimeter in a prescribed area like a dedicated lane, limiting automotive autonomy to this geographic boundary.
In this regard, the agriculture industry is instructive. “We’re seeing quite a bit of autonomous equipment on farms in India, where tractors geo-fenced into a particular agricultural area drive around freely without anyone on board,” says John Simlett, consulting firm EY’s Future of Mobility leader.
Another factor driving autonomous trucks on the road is online retail. Small trucks and vans delivering consumer goods purchased from online retainers, such as Amazon, will continue to crowd residential streets, but autonomous long-haul trucks plying dedicated highway lanes in the future will transport the goods from ports and rail depots to the smaller vans and trucks.
“We’ll begin to see what the industry calls `platooning,’ in which the first truck in a queue of trucks is driven by a human being and the remainder use automated driver support systems, in addition to remote piloting in the first and last miles of travel, to maintain a specific distance behind the leader, accelerating and braking as the computer dictates,” says Viscelli.
This possibility bodes well for all of us. Highway accidents generally are the most catastrophic, with truck-related fatalities reaching their highest level over the past 29 years in 2017, rising 9 percent to cause 4,761 deaths, according to the latest available statistics. According to the NHTSA, autonomous trucks traveling in a dedicated lane away from other vehicles theoretically would enhance safety by removing “human error from the crash equation.”
The Missing Link?
Despite the varied benefits, the year of fully autonomous vehicles taking over the roads remains uncertain. A major stumbling block is safety, insofar as a clear and mutually-agreed upon understanding of acceptable risk by governments and the public.
“No critical system of transportation can claim a zero percent level of risk,” Tawiri says. “Decades passed before people agreed on an acceptable level of risk when flying in a plane. We’re in a phase now where we’re trying to define what is acceptable and unacceptable risk.”
This effort has not stopped dozens if not hundreds of autonomous test vehicles from jumping on the nation’s roads, most of them unnoticed by the public. So far, 29 states have passed legislation allowing specified uses of self-driving vehicles on state roads. That number is expected to increase this year following the decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation in December 2018 to limit federal oversight of autonomous vehicles, in addition to plans by Congress to reintroduce legislation permitting more than 100,000 autonomous vehicles to be driven by 2022.
5G is expected to accelerate this timetable. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year, the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), an organization composed of more than 110 automotive, technology and telecommunications companies, unveiled Cooperative Intelligent Transportation Systems (CITS), an all-encompassing autonomous vehicle system comprising vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicle-to-network, and vehicle-to-pedestrian communications.
Such vehicle-to-everything wireless communications (dubbed V2X) can handle enormous data volumes, reducing latency risks. “5GAA supports the idea that 5G will be the ultimate platform to enable CITS, (as it) will be able to carry mission-critical communications for safer driving,” the group stated. “The impact on road safety alone is sufficiently important to make CITS a priority.”
5GAA has assembled a number of working groups, each tasked with a specific assignment—the development of industry standards, system architecture, business models, go-to-market strategies, and so on. At CES 2019, V2X took home the Innovation Award in the Vehicle Intelligence and Self-Driving Technology category, giving further credence to expectations of a shorter road to tomorrow.
According to EY’s Simlett, 5G networks are expected to reach half the world’s population by 2024. “My perspective is that we will begin to see Level 4 autonomous vehicles on the road in much greater numbers by 2030, with Level 5 vehicles following relatively soon thereafter,” he says.
That’s roughly 10 years from now. Assuming this prediction is close to reality, a speedier schedule for self-driving vehicles is on the near horizon. As NHTSA stated, “Fully automated cars and trucks that drive us, instead of us driving them, are a vision that seems on the verge of becoming a reality.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.