Things certainly have changed over the 30 years since Tire Business first began covering the tire industry.
We now have the Internet, PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, email, GPS, digital photography and social networking. Gone, for the most part, are encyclopedias, reliance on land lines, maps, film cameras, 8-track tapes and tape cassettes, VCRs and VHS tapes and bookstores.
And it seems that the rate of change has continued to speed up as the years fly by. Cell phones are becoming outdated every six months. So what's next?
In the trucking industry we could be headed for driverless trucks!
You may have already heard of the Google driverless car. This is a project by the Internet giant that is developing technology for autonomous cars. In 2005 the robotic vehicle the Google team created won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge and took the $2 million prize.
There is now a fleet of about a dozen of these vehicles operating with a licensed driver in the driver's seat in and around San Francisco. By August 2012, they had clocked more than 300,000 autonomous-driving miles, accident-free in busy traffic. These cars drive at the speed limit that is stored on maps in the systemwhich also maintains the cars' distances from other vehicles using a network of sensors.
The system also provides an override that enables a human driver to take control of the car by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel, similar to cruise control systems already found in many cars today.
In addition to Google's work, auto makers like BMW A.G. and Audi A.G. have been investing in driverless research that also has resulted in the popular parking assist feature.
Features such as adaptive cruise control or traffic-jam assist that slow or apply the brakes automatically in certain situations are also being introduced by other car companies.
Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. predicts that self-driving cars will hit roads by 2025. Not to be outdone, General Motor Co.'s Cadillac division expects to produce partially autonomous cars at a large scale by 2015 and could have fully autonomous cars available by the end of the decadeallowing travelers to be free to talk on the phone, text, eat, drink, smoke, put on make-up, play electronic games, etc., without aggravating drivers in the other cars around them.
And the good news is that driverless cars can make roads safer, free commuters from the drudgery of driving, reduce congestion and provide transport to people who can't drive themselves, such as the blind, disabled, elderly and intoxicated. The basic premise is that self-driving cars would be far safer than human-driven cars. Just imagine how much safer roads would be if distracted driving accidents disappeared.
In order to make this a reality, states already are passing laws to accommodate autonomous cars.
To date California, Nevada and Florida have passed laws permitting driverless vehicles, and Texas is mulling over a law now as well.
All of these laws require that, at the least, a licensed driver must be in the driver's seat. The big question, though, is: Who should be held liable in case a driverless vehicle is involved in a crash?
It looks like the answer is going to be that whoever is in the driver's seat will take the blame.
But what, you ask, is happening with commercial trucks? The answer is a lot.
Even as you read this, on the other side of the worldmore specifically, Down Under, in a western Australian iron ore mineheavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. is running six automated model 793f mining trucks equipped with 2,650-horsepower engines and more than 25 million lines of software code.
These trucks haul rock and dirt up and down steep grades 24 hours a day. Traditionally, each of these trucks would require four drivers to operate them around the clock, but instead they use guidance systems to run on their ownmonitored only by technical specialists in a control room miles away.
If an obstacle appears in its path, the truck has enough onboard brain power to decide whether to drive over or around it. The cool thing about robots is that they do whatever they are programmed to doand don't decide to override management decisions and do things their way. Therefore, if the truck is supposed to be in fifth gear coming down a grade, it will be in fifth gear every time, even if it's two minutes before quitting time.
Eventually there will be 45 of these trucks on the mine site, eliminating the need for 180 driving positions. The fewer remaining jobs will pay better but will be more technical- and software-related.
In Japan, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a public research and development group, rolled out four trucks for demonstration this springbut only the lead vehicle had a driver.
The trucks, which followed each other closely, were kept in formation with on-board computers and cameras that were programmed to recognize the white lines on the road, communicate with the other trucks, and control their speed. Radar and infrared lasers on each vehicle scanned the area for obstacles to avoid. The speed was kept at about 50 mph and the trucks traveled about four yards apart, which was far enough to enable the truck behind to stop in time if the lead truck hit the brakes (the on-board computers enabled the trucks to respond within 20 milliseconds).
Since the trucks were close enough to each other to take advantage of the slipstream effect in which the truck ahead reduces the amount of air resistance the one behind has to plow through, the trucks saved about 15 percent in fuel. And while this was a test run on an oval track, NEDO was able to prove that driverless trucks can work and hopes to have something on the road by 2020.
So it is possible to have autonomous trucks, although so far none has operated in real traffic while autonomous cars have.
Eventually these systems are going to intersect at some point. Then roadworthy, heavy-traffic-capable trucks without drivers will be born. Since the economics don't make much sense on the consumer level yet, it is expected that the first generation of driverless vehicles will be commercial trucks instead of family sedans.
After all, the usual purpose of a car is to transport someone from one place to another. Even if driven by a robot, the whole point is to have a person in the car.
But quite the opposite is true for trucks. The whole point of a commercial truck is to transport goods from one place to another. The driver is simply a necessary component in the equation today and must be in the truck to get it from point A to B.
Trucking is a commercial enterprise and driverless trucks will save fleets money by eliminating drivers' pay, payroll taxes, healthcare benefits, workers' compensation and driver turnover. This technology would also certainly address the chronic driver shortages that the industry has been experiencing for the past decade.
They also will make fleets money by being more productive. While an idle truck with a sleeping driver is just a depreciating asset, a truck operated robotically never needs to be unproductive. In addition, hours-of-service regulations would not apply to robots since they never tireso like the Energizer bunny, they will just keep going and going and going....
On average, full-time drivers make between $35,000 and $85,000 a year with benefits. Some drivers in special operations can make upwards of $100,000. Even if the cost of automating a truck were an additional $200,000 above the current cost of the tractor and trailerwhich is about $200,000 depending on the trailer typemost trucking companies would still jump at the chance to eliminate driver-related costs and headaches, while maximizing productivity and reaping savings that could exceed $100,000 per truck annually.
The use of autonomous long-haul trucks could add up to a multibillion-dollar opportunity for the trucking industry. And some people think they are only 15 years away. You don't have to be a visionary to see the trucking industry transitioning to trucks without drivers.
Initially, these trucks will have to run on roads separate from regular vehicles or via embedded roadside beacons. That won't be cheap. But this will be a necessary first step to prove the case to federal and state governments as well as the public that these vehicles are safe. That's why closed-course uses such as in the Australian mine are important right now.
How will this move to robotic trucks affect you, the commercial tire dealer?
The most obvious point is that with constant use, both tractors and trailers will need to be serviced and repaired more often and tires will wear much faster. Due to controlled driver (-less) behavior, though, tires should wear more evenly and tread mileage should be better.
You will probably be called upon to provide more tire and maintenance services to address equipment and tire problems quickly since fleets will not want these vehicles stopped for long periods of time because that loss in productivity hurts the bottom line.
Since these vehicles would operate around the clock without resting, expect not only emergency repairs to be made in the wee hours of the morning. Scheduled repairs would likely be made at that time as well since the new work day will be a full 24 hours. This means increased business for your commercial repair facilities and tire service. And perhaps less sleep for you and your crew.
With no drivers in the cab, there will be no one to call for emergency road service when a tire goes flat or the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) indicates a problem. Therefore the vehicle will be monitored through telematics to provide the fleet with remote diagnostics of all of the vehicle's systems, including tires.
So what happens to all those drivers' jobs once we've got autonomous truck technology perfected?
Those jobs will just disappear, assuming that the law allows driverless trucks to operate and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters doesn't get legal protection for those jobs. If the Teamsters try, it should be quite a fightbut one the union will lose in the end.
And obsolete truck driving jobs will go the way of the gas station service attendant who used to fill your tank and wash your windshield.
While things certainly have changed in the last 30 years, hold onto your hat because the changes we are going to see in the next 30 years will blow your mind. And that, my friends, is what they call progress.