Metropolitan Areas + Autonomous Vehicles – Congestion = Savings

What would Chicago-area businesses and governments do with an extra 7 and a half billion dollars a year?

As business owners know, there are hidden costs everywhere, and not always in the most obvious places. One of the most significant hidden costs is caused by something people already hate regardless of its financial impact: traffic congestion. And according to a report authored by Toni Preckwinkle, President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, congestion costs could be as high as 7 and a half billion dollars per year.

That’s such a huge number, it’s almost hard to believe. But when you think about it a bit, it starts to make sense. Sitting in traffic burns gas and causes wear and tear on vehicles, which is obviously worth money, and also wastes time, which is also valuable, if slightly harder to quantify. When you have entire counties gridlocked in traffic all at once, that’s a lot of money going down the tubes at once. And businesses are forced to pass part of this cost on to the customer in order to remain profitable, so even if you aren’t a business owner or an elected municipal official, this problem affects you.

Cook County is the most-affected county in the nation by the total cost of congestion. The statistic bears repeating: 7.5 billion dollars a year lost in a county of 5.2 million people. That’s around fifteen hundred dollars per person every year! Of course, the cost isn’t distributed evenly — much of the brunt falls upon business owners that need to move goods through the country, and executives, whose time is worth quite a bit dollar-wise, who have to make it to meetings and get stuck in traffic when they could be fulfilling time-sensitive duties. Milwaukee County is also in the top 10 counties in the US when it comes to the dubious distinction of “most money lost to congestion”. When you consider the fact that fuel and wear-and-tear costs are exponentially worse as congestion gets worse, being in this particular top-ten is a really unattractive place to be.

And it’s not expected to get better on its own. In fact, it’s expected to get a lot worse on its own. Consider the following factors: A 3.8 percent increase in police-reported crashes this past year — the largest percentage increase in nearly 50 years. Annual GDP growth of 2.5 percent. Massive growth in e-commerce sales. An anticipated 2 billion people added to metro areas around the world by 2050. And ever-more dramatic weather impacts.

The answer to this lies, at least in part, in autonomous vehicles. We can’t know the exact numbers of how much will be saved when all vehicles are autonomous, we can only say that most — if not all — of congestion costs will disappear. But that’s a long way off from now. We can, however, take heart in a recent study covered by the MIT Technology Review. The study showed that just one autonomous vehicle controlling its speed intelligently in a traffic jam “reduces the standard deviation in speed of all cars in the jam by around 50 percent, and the number of sharp hits to the brakes is cut from around nine per vehicle per kilometer to around 2.5 — and sometimes practically zero.” What difference does that make? “Because fuel use increases when cars slow down and have to get back up to speed, the presence of the AV reduces fuel consumption … In fact, the savings is as much as 40 percent when averaged across all the cars in the traffic flow.”

By the way, 40 percent of $7.5 billion is $3 billion. And that’s just the expectation of the change caused by one AV in a traffic jam. What would be the difference with dozens of them driving along a smart corridor? That’s a figure that could be game-changing when the dollar amount is known. And why not start with the county that loses more than any other to congestion issues?

Let’s look at the trucking industry for a good perspective on this. The industry currently loses 996 million hours in delay per year. That delay is the equivalent of 362,243 commercial drivers sitting idle for an entire working year. Trucking costs per hour average around $64, so when you put the numbers together, the losses the industry takes as a result of congestion amount to roughly $63.4 billion. That’s close to $6,000 a year per truck.

When truck routes go through Illinois, the industry loses $2.67 billion a year — fourth-worst in the nation. The Chicago metro area accounts for $2.1 billion of those losses. Wisconsin takes a big hit, too — $1.74 billion a year.

The trucking industry, luckily, has a head start when it comes to automated and connected vehicle technology. The truck platooning model, which was deemed “near-market ready” by ATRI early last year, was found by that group to reduce fuel use by about 10%. That alone already represents savings that more than make up for the loss per truck per year in congested traffic. But that’s just for first-gen platooning, where the following-truck gap remains fairly conservative, in light of the new technology and lack of 5G communications. Studies have shown that closing that gap increases efficiency, though they’re not entirely certain what the exact figure will be when platooning can be optimally employed. Even as dictated by current numbers, though, the $6,000 per truck per year lost by these companies turns into a significant surplus of up to $15,000.

Even going by the conservative estimate, though, we’re talking millions of gallons of fuel saved per year. That’s not only a statistic that would come as wonderful news to trucking companies, to whom fuel represents a staggering 41% of operational costs, it’s also a savings that gets passed on to the companies’ clients — American businesses and manufacturers. And, no less importantly, it makes a major positive impact on the environment — trucking represents a full 10% of total US oil use.

So we know that platooning, in its most basic form, saves more than enough money to make up for the trucking industry’s congestion-related losses. And we also know that a single AV in a traffic jam cuts those costs almost in half for all vehicles involved.

What we don’t know exactly is how much more money, on top of those amounts, would be saved on a corridor with dedicated lanes for platooning, for autonomous vehicles, and equipped with low-latency V2I communications capabilities to help connected vehicles maximize current systems like automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. But the upside is so high, especially in a region hit hardest by congestion’s costs, that the time has come to find out.

Sources used in this article include ATRI’s “An Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking, September 2016”

The American Transportation Research Institute’s White Paper: “Heavy Truck Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control: Evaluation, Testing, and Stakeholder Engagement for Near Term Deployment, Phase Two Final Report”

ATRI’s “Cost of Congestion to the Trucking Industry, 2017 Update”

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

Looking Ahead: How AVs Will Impact Truck Drivers

When Americans talk about robots taking their jobs, they’re often thinking of factory work. Lately, however, the conversation has a new spin. “Autonomous trucks are taking drivers’ jobs,” so the claim goes.

It’s important to note that while this concern is being presented as a problem that’s already rearing its head, autonomous trucks aren’t taking drivers’ jobs — yet. That said, there is some truth to it: if we’re looking several years down the line, the concern is real, and we need to develop a plan.

1.7 million Americans are employed as truck drivers — making it one of the most common professions in the nation. But lately, truck driving jobs aren’t easy to fill. The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates a shortage of about 40,000 drivers that could grow to about 240,000 by 2022.

The reason for the shortage is not entirely clear — trucking companies say that they’re having trouble replacing older workers entering retirement with young recruits, who seem less interested in the profession than previous generations — but we can all agree that driving a truck for a living is a tough job. The hours are long, and drivers spend the vast majority of their time alone. Not to mention the declining pay: in 1980, the average trucker in America was making an annual salary (adjusted for inflation) of more than $110,000. Today, truckers make an average salary of about $40,000 a year, all while putting in longer hours and sometimes having to overwork themselves as they compete with other drivers for the most profitable routes.

But the driver shortage isn’t expected to last long, and yes, that is the likely result of autonomous truck technology. A report from the International Transport Forum says that 70% of truck driving jobs could be eliminated by 2030 because of self-driving trucks. A White House report, issued on December 16 of last year, estimates job losses between 80% to 100%. As with many issues surrounding AVs, there’s no consensus on issues of timing. For instance, a Goldman Sachs analysis, cited by Business Insider, suggests that AV adoption will be slow for several decades and significant driver losses due to technology are perhaps 25 years off, which is clearly at odds with the ITF report.

How, you ask, is this shift going to change the industry and the truck driving profession?

In the future, truckers could work more like airline pilots, maneuvering big rigs onto the highway and then flipping on the autopilot for most of the trip, taking over again only when they have to get off the main route. But that doesn’t exactly explain the job loss. After all, there is still be a driver in the cab.

The explanation has to do, in large part, with the birth of a new technique — truck platooning —- which has already been proven to reduce fuel consumption dramatically in many studies. In fact, it’s expected to be the first “market-ready” connected-vehicle technique. The reason for its efficiency: aerodynamics. Following one another more closely than can be done safely by human drivers, wind resistance is reduced, making trucks more efficient.

A common scenario — involving trucking fleets and independent truckers alike — is that trucks would merge onto the highway and meet up at a station (think of the weighing stations that already exist). At this point, a lead truck is selected — note that this truck is expected to have a driver in it for the foreseeable future — and is “wirelessly connected” to a platoon of several other trucks, which are all automated and set up to receive precise instructions from their connected leader. Now, the platoon is ready to barrel down the highway – spaced by mere feet – to the next station, where trucks can be removed and added from the chain based on delivery points.

All of a sudden, what used to be a truck caravan starts to look more like a digital train, requiring only one driver, maneuvering in a reserved lane, which could be thought of as a railroad track. Point is, autonomous trucks will not be operating on the roads of today; they will be operating on the roads of tomorrow and, indeed, those roads look very different.

The workforce will look different too: there will be fewer drivers, but they will need to be technically savvy, able to troubleshoot the connected system that will make the platoons possible. And remember, the trucks that are following the leader are expected to be driverless before long. If all goes to plan, even the lead truck may be driverless after several decades of perfecting the process.

For technology enthusiasts, that all sounds exciting. But we must remember, when talking about job loss, we are ultimately talking about human beings, people whose dignity and well-being are at stake. So we need to be thinking ahead.

It’s easy to point out problems we may face in the future. What’s not as easy —- but incredibly important —- is beginning a dialogue about what can actually be done to offset the issues we can foresee.

There was an interesting op-ed in the LA Times recently that took this problem head-on. In it, several solutions were offered. For instance, we could already be thinking about adopting retraining programs for affected drivers. These programs have worked with some success when dealing with offshoring in other industries. We could also reconsider unemployment insurance. Laid-off drivers could receive adjustment assistance just like factory workers who lost jobs because of imports. And hey, we could get creative with how we fund these programs. As autonomous vehicle companies press Congress to enact laws that create a nationwide green light and a favorable regulatory framework for these vehicles, in exchange Congress could levy a tax on each driverless mile to finance the retraining, adjustment assistance, and/or unemployment insurance.

My point is not to advocate for or against these solutions, but simply to say that we could — and we should — be thinking ahead. While autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to do great things — increase safety, help the environment, and even mitigate driver shortages — it’s like any other major technological advancement, it comes with changes built-in, and not all change is easy.

The good news is that we can see what’s coming, and we have plenty of time to properly prepare for the future. It’s clear that autonomous vehicles will be a boon to industry across the world, but we can also take steps to make sure it’s not a body blow to the American workforce at the same time.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

SELF DRIVE Act Passes Overwhelmingly in US House

In today’s political climate, it’s shocking when an important bill passes in the House with a unanimous voice vote. Especially when it comes to federal regulations. But it just happened, and it’s a big deal for autonomous vehicle enthusiasts.

The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act isn’t a law yet — it still has to make it through the Senate and, after that, the joint Congressional reconciliation process. But the Senate Commerce Committee is currently working on a similar legislative package, and previously-debated measures on the Senate floor have shown that they’re ready to pass some AV legislation. One thing’s for sure: this Congress desperately wants to find some legislation they can actually pass, and the AV bill’s broad bipartisan support makes it very likely to wind up on the President’s desk for a signature.

So what does this bill do exactly?

The quick take: Katie McAuliffe, a contributor to TheHill, put it succinctly: “The act correctly delineates the purview of federal versus state regulation for autonomous vehicles. In short, federal regulatory bodies have authority when it comes to the car, while states have authority when it comes to the driver.” That’s it in a nutshell. But let’s look a little more closely at what the newly-defined federal and state roles are and what comes next.

The new federal role: Assuming all goes as expected and a version of this bill becomes the law of the land, say goodbye to the patchwork of different state regulations for autonomous vehicle testing and manufacturing. NHTSA will be in charge of setting safety, performance, equipment and design standards for AVs, and automakers will be able to deploy up to 100,000 test vehicles apiece (read: vehicles that don’t meet federal safety standards), but only if they submit comprehensive safety assessment certifications to NHTSA and get its approval. Manufacturers will also have to develop cybersecurity measures and privacy protections.

The new state role: States will still have a lot of issues to figure out: pretty much everything that has a “human element”. The state responsibilities will include licensing, registration, insurance, qualifications for operation, law enforcement, crash investigation, congestion management and emissions inspections. They’ll also have oversight over sale, purchase, and repair of AVs.

What we’re still waiting for: Sec. Elaine Chao will release revised guidelines on AVs soon, which will update the Obama administration’s now-dated guidelines. NHTSA will also need to release AV-specific safety standards — but the position of NHTSA chief has yet to be filled by the Trump administration. (NHTSA does have acting administrators and an acting executive director in the meantime).

Some concerns remain: Axios points out that the vehicle doesn’t address autonomous trucks specifically, and could have the side effect of hastening their deployment, but that the Senate is considering holding a hearing on that issue specifically. Also noted by Axios was the lack of clarity in the government’s role enforcing standards for cybersecurity, which the House bill asks manufacturers to address — but judging by a set of bipartisan principles for AV legislation released by U.S. Senators Thune (R-SD), Peters (D-MI) and Nelson (D-FL), which names cybersecurity as one of the chief areas of concern for both parties, it seems likely that specific language will be added as the Senate takes over the effort.

And, finally, Axios raises the concern that as the 2018 midterms approach, the bipartisan spirit surrounding this measure might dissolve. While that does have a familiar ring to it, there are plenty of examples throughout recent electoral history where Congress managed to advance non-controversial legislation while it fell into gridlock on other issues. Both parties seem to be anxious to get these regulations into place, and neither party stands to gain anything but the ire of the public by choosing to slow it down. The fact that this passed the House with a unanimous voice vote speaks volumes, and it appears that the safe bet is that these proposed regulatory powers will become law before any national election approaches.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.