Future of Freight: Driver-Less Trucks And Bypassing FAA Regulations

Published: Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 5:05am
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(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Transportation planners in metro Phoenix are focusing on ways to keep trucks moving safely and efficiently on arterial streets leading to Interstate 10.
(Photo courtesy of Natilus)
Rendering of a sea-based aircraft that a California company plans to build to bypass FAA regulations and cut air cargo costs.

Phoenix-based Swift Transportation will celebrate its 50th year of moving goods across the country on Thursday. For much of that time, the business model was pretty straightforward: a single trucker behind the wheel. But the future of freight will look much different as demand increases and drones and driverless vehicles move in. 

The New Trucker

Outside Swift’s corporate headquarters, Michael Voyles shows off his new wheels.

“This is the new T680 Kenworth,” he said. “It’s got a lot of bells and whistles.”

Like bunk beds, cabinets and a mini fridge. In recognition of his clean driving record, Michael Voyles earned the title of Quadruple Diamond Million Mile Driver and Swift provided him with a custom black truck. Voyles added a skull cover on the gear shift.

“Just adds a little style to the truck,” he said. “Pretty neat little deal."

In 1999, when Voyles started, he drove alone. Today, he’s part of a two-man team. 

“He’s my vice president,” Voyles laughed as he introduced Robert Seamon.

The duo runs a route for Amazon from Dallas to Phoenix. One sleeps, while the other drives and the truck can move up to 22 hours a day. It’s what the industry calls ‘team operations’ and Voyles thinks we’ll see more of it. 

Customers are demanding,” he said. “They want service now.” 

The American Trucking Associations, or ATA, says trucks move nearly 70 percent of all goods throughout the United States. Those are your groceries, clothes and cars.

“We’re in the 22-23,000 driver range,” said Richard Stocking, Swift’s president and co-CEO.

To keep up with demand and replace retiring drivers, the ATA estimates nearly 900,000 drivers will need to be hired in the next decade. 

“The millennials are a different breed,” Stocking said. “They put home time as high or higher than pay.” 

He says they’re experimenting with ways to get drivers home every night. Stocking also hopes new technology will help. He was impressed with his recent ride in an autonomous semi hauling 60,000 pounds down a two-lane road in Nevada. 

“A gust of wind come up and actually hit us and that truck stayed in its lane,” he said.  

The 18-wheeler was autonomous, not driver-less. That means the truck can drive itself, but it can also tell the driver when to take over. For example, when an exit is coming up. 

“Just think about the new kind of driver,” Stocking said. “You could have a college student with his CDL (commercial driver’s license) that could maybe be doing homework as he’s driving up and down the road. Or you could have a driver that is helping in customer service or tracking trailers or tracking shipments.”

Platooning is another technique being tested, especially in Europe. It involves two or more trucks travelling together with the lead truck controlling the route, speed and braking.

If that sounds pretty futuristic, listen to what Aleksey Matyushev and his fellow engineers are working on. Natilus, the California-based company, aims to cut global air freight costs in half.

How?

By using an autonomous drone and getting around Federal Aviation Administration regulations.  

“Right now for you to be regulated by the FAA you have to be in FAA airspace, right? So, if you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean at 20,000 feet, there’s no FAA there, you can do whatever the heck you want, right?”  

Matyushev says in the continental United States the Natilus drone will operate like a ship. Using a remote joystick control, it will dock into port, the cargo will be loaded and it will tow out with the rest of the traffic. 

When the vehicle reaches international waters, which is out of the FAA’s territory, it will take off like an airplane.  Once it nears its destination it will land and tow in with other ships.  

“Even if the United State doesn’t want to play ball, all of the sudden you know if they come in and still start slapping our hands and you know digging into the federal code of regulations and finding something wrong with us,” Matyushev said. ”Well, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of us. It just means that we have to go somewhere else.”   

During a June air cargo conference in Phoenix, Matyushev told attendees that Natilus will spend $100,000 to build a 30-foot prototype expected to be in the air by next fall. He says the ultimate goal is to build a 140 foot vehicle, estimated to cost $50 million, which could see its first flight before 2020.

While Matyushev says their drones would take longer than a traditional Boeing 747, the costs would be significantly less. He says a typical flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai might take the 747 about 14 hours compared to 32 hours for the Natilus drone. 

Assuming jet fuel costs $3 per gallon, Matyushev says the Natilus drone could move 200,000 pounds of cargo at a cost of $150,000 compared to $400,000 for a Boeing 747.

Back at Swift’s corporate headquarters in Phoenix, Stocking says they are looking forward to working with companies on platooning and autonomous vehicles.

But, Michael Voyles isn’t worried about technology taking his place. He thinks customers will always need a personal touch. 

“And, I’ll be there,” he said.

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