Autonomous truck tests planned for Alberta highways this winter

The shortage of truck drivers is a familiar problem and now a new project using technology similar to what’s already used in farmers’ fields is being tested on highways.

The Alberta Motor Transportation Association (AMTA) has launched Canada’s first program to test a platoon system of tractor trailers that will see the lead truck driven and the following truck using driver-assist technology.

The two-truck pilot project will see the lead vehicle driven by a trucker and the following semi monitored by a driver with the eventual idea to have both be operated in tandem by one operator.

“If you want to draw the parallel to agriculture, you get in the combine, you press the big play button and it goes and drives the pre-programmed route around the field,” said AMTA chair Jude Groves. “(Agriculture) is experiencing this already in the technology that’s available in the industry, more so than we have.”

The two platoon trucks operated by Bison Transport — named Daisy and Lily — will be tested over the winter on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway between Calgary and Edmonton, as well as between Calgary and Banff.

However, there’s a big difference between an open field and a busy highway and Groves said the technology needs to be tested to ensure safety.

But there is potential that the technology will improve safety for the trucking industry, where there can be issues with driver fatigue because of long-distance hauls or too many driving hours logged without rests.

Groves said the driver-assist technology can take over the more mundane decision making of driving, leaving the more skill-required tasks in the hands of operators.

“Where we’re able to augment the function of that driver to increase their focus on critical decisions, as opposed to all the decisions, then that is going to raise the bar in terms of safety,” said Groves.

Insurance studies have shown the vast majority of traffic accidents involving transportation trucks have a human element to them, said Groves.

“Generally, it’s because the driver is making a decision or focusing somewhere besides where they should be.”

As part of the pilot program, fatigue management will also be studied with cameras and biometrics.

Aaron Latimer, AMTA senior manager, said the technology also may provide incentive to tech-savvy younger workers into the industry.

“We think it will make it more attractive to younger, more technology-driven people within our broader community,” said Latimer. “We think that’s a game changer in terms of attracting more young people to the profession.”

The technology is being tested widely in the southern United States, said Groves, but the Canadian winters pose a great challenge to adapting the technology in Canada.

While the AMTA pilot project is using only two trucks, there aren’t any technological impediments to having more vehicles platooning, said Latimer.

“Right now, there are no restrictions because it’s wireless technology where each vehicle speaks to the vehicle behind it,” he said.

For now, the current pilot project will see both vehicles with drivers as the technology is tested.

As for when such driver-assist trucking might be hitting the open road, Groves said it’s too early to say.

“It’s about getting to that next level where society is comfortable with the technology and recognizes it does bring value.”

But until then or unless things change in the trucking industry to attract more people, the driver shortage is likely to continue.

“If we had 20,000 drivers yesterday to put to work, they would be employed and working in our industry,” said Groves.

The project is being funded by $2.3 million from Transport Canada and is also receiving research support from the University of Alberta, Solaris Fatigue Management, Tantus, PMG Technologies, Esso and Alberta Transportation.