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Lane Departures: Those self-driving truck stories aren’t automatic anymore

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Lane departures: those self-driving truck stories aren’t automatic anymore
A Starsky Robotics truck wends its way down a Florida highway.

What makes news “news”?

That’s a question that journalists are first asked in college, with the presumption that they will keep asking themselves that same question throughout their careers.

We were asking ourselves that question a few weeks ago, when we came across a new story that seemed awfully familiar. Maybe you saw it somewhere.  A company called Kodiak Robotics, a relatively recent entry in the self-driving truck technology race, had begun using its trucks to make regular, semi-autonomous deliveries between Dallas and Houston.

Lane departures: those self-driving truck stories aren’t automatic anymore

The story described the runs, clarified just how autonomous their trucks really are — where and how much humans stand guard, and how much they take over when it comes to the tricky parts — and then the story gave the reader a rundown of the company’s brief but meteoric history.

My initial reaction when I read about this milestone achievement was, “Hmm, you don’t say.”

Back in journalism school, I was taught that one of the ways to decide if news was news was to consider that the root word of “news” is “new.” First, is it new in terms of being recent? Second, is it new in terms of being something distinctive? As a news organization, you want to avoid being redundant, being repetitive, to keep telling the same kinds of stories about same things in the same way, over and over and over again, you know what I mean?

That’s the feeling I got with the Kodiak story, like I’d read this story before. That’s because I pretty much had. Back in May, there was a story about a company called TuSimple that had made self-driving mail runs between Phoenix and Dallas. Then in June we had a story about a company called Starsky Robotics, how they drove a truck essentially by remote control for nearly 10 miles on a highway in Florida, breaking their personal best, set last year when the story was about how they drove a truck for about 7 miles on a Florida highway.

By sheer repetition, the Kodiak story had a “so what else is new?” feel. Sure, self-driving technology is a fascinating topic, one that will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the industry someday, but do we need to run a story every time one of these companies has what it wants us to consider a breakthrough?

It reminds me of when astronomers started finding exoplanets — planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. The first time it happened, it was a huge deal, without question. And then when they found a few more, that was a big deal, too, because it indicated that the galaxy is crawling with exoplanets.

But then they kept finding them. That first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992. Today, they’ve found more than 4,100 exoplanets. It’s fun, every once in a while, to get an update on the running total, and now and then they find one that’s particularly unusual. But let’s face it, at this point, most of us are waiting now for the day astronomers can say they pointed their telescope at one of these planets and saw someone waving back.

I think we’ve reached a similar point with autonomous truck technology. For a few years, the industry had been inundated with proclamations from companies large and small, shouting over one another that they were somewhere between 15 years and 10 minutes away from perfecting autonomous vehicle technology.

Then in 2016, a small company called Otto, which by that point has been sucked up by Uber, ran a truckload of beer “autonomously” for 120 miles in Colorado. Reporters, wanting to demonstrate their thoroughness, dutifully noted that it was exactly 51,744 cans of Budweiser.

The story captured America’s attention because it represented the first commercial use of automated truck technology — and because it involved beer. Since then, Otto is defunct and Uber is out of the self-driving truck race, but they established the template for autonomous truck testing stories.

Ever since then, we’ve gotten occasional stories about one company or another that was about to do some kind of road testing out on real roads. That, of course, is enough to get the public’s attention.

The details may vary, but the stories all run pretty much the same. First, the experimental run, publicized just before or just after it occurs, or both, is presented like it’s the boldest undertaking since the Apollo program. A closer read usually indicates that while it may represent a small step for mankind, it is a giant leap for that particular company.

We also get the obligatory history of the company. They’re always presented like modern-day Horatio Alger tales, the little company that could, that pulled itself by its own bootstraps – and raised $50 million in investment capital. These on-road breakthroughs always seem to come fairly soon thereafter.

They still like to refer to themselves as “startups,” because it makes it sound like it’s two guys working out of their garage. I know the term is fairly new, but I think we need to set some rules, like, if you’ve been around five years, have facilities in three states and your company’s value is in the eight-figure range or above, you are no longer a startup, you’re just an “is.”

For some of these companies, publicity seems to be its own reward, or maybe they’re hoping to drum up more of that sweet, sweet investment capital.

This summer, TuSimple, the company made the postal runs in May, seems to have fallen in love with the limelight. After calling attention to their postal endeavor, they announced that the company had embarked in a partnership with a community college to create an “Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist” program, a five-course curriculum open to Class A CDL holders, ostensibly to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. The press releases touted it as being a one-of-a-kind program, which I suspect is a distinction it may hold for quite some time.

Then, a few weeks later, TuSimple was back in our email boxes with the announcement that UPS had made a small investment in the company and was working with TuSimple on studying the viability of autonomous trucking.

Sounds like a smart idea, but why did TuSimple think we all needed to hear about it? When a company sends out a press release, it’s always because its trying to sell something, even if that something is the brand itself.

Seeing it from their side, it may be sound strategy. But as the stories of autonomous testing come more frequently, the bar is set higher. Sorry, “startups,” you’re a victim of your own success. Simply getting a vehicle on the road isn’t the headline-grabber it used to be.

Now, once we can wave at an autonomous truck and it blows its horn back, then we’ll have something.

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The Nation

ATRI releases annual list of top 100 truck bottlenecks; Atlanta makes list 3 times

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Three different areas of Atlanta made ATRI’s list of most congested bottlenecks. (iStock Photo)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) has released its annual list highlighting the most congested bottlenecks for trucks in America.

The 2020 Top Truck Bottleneck List assesses the level of truck-involved congestion at 300 locations on the national highway system. The analysis, based on truck GPS data from over 1 million heavy duty trucks uses several customized software applications and analysis methods, along with terabytes of data from trucking operations to produce a congestion impact ranking for each location. ATRI’s truck GPS data is also used to support the U.S. DOT’s Freight Mobility Initiative. The bottleneck locations detailed in this latest ATRI list represent the top 100 congested locations, although ATRI continuously monitors more than 300 freight-critical locations.

The intersection of I-95 and State Route 4 in Fort Lee, New Jersey is once again the No. 1 freight bottleneck in the country. The rest of the Top 10 includes:

  1. Atlanta: I-285 at I-85 (North)
  2. Nashville: I-24/I-40 at I-440 (East)
  3. Houston: I-45 at I-69/US 59
  4. Atlanta, GA: I-75 at I-285 (North)
  5. Chicago, IL: I-290 at I-90/I-94
  6. Atlanta, GA: I-20 at I-285 (West)
  7. Cincinnati, OH: I-71 at I-75
  8. Los Angeles, CA: SR 60 at SR 57
  9. Los Angeles, CA: I-710 at I-105

“ATRI’s bottleneck analysis is an important tool for TDOT as we work to maximize the safety and efficiency of our transportation system, and ensure we are making the smartest investments possible,” said Tennessee Department of Transportation Assistant Bureau Chief Freight & Logistics Dan Pallme. “The additional capacity we are providing as part of the ongoing I-440 Reconstruction Project should improve the safety and reliability of this important corridor, which we know is critical to freight movement.”

ATRI’s analysis, which utilized data from 2019, found that the number of locations experiencing significant congestion — with average daily speeds of 45 MPH or less — has increased 92 percent in just five years, far outpacing the 10 percent growth in traffic congestion for that same time period.

“ATA has been beating the drum about the continued degradation of our infrastructure, and thanks to ATRI’s research we can see exactly how decades of ignoring the problem are impacting not just our industry but our economy and commuters everywhere,” said American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear. “This report should sound the alarm for policymakers that the cost of doing nothing is too high and provide a roadmap of where to target investments to really solve our nation’s mounting infrastructure crisis.”

For access to the full report, including detailed information on each of the 100 top congested locations, please visit ATRI’s website at TruckingResearch.org.

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The Nation

Stretch of Highway 22 in Oregon closed after tanker crash, diesel spill

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tanker crash on highway 22
Highway 22 between Idanha and Santiam Junction is unlikely to reopen until Friday or Saturday as crews remove contaminated soil in a roadside ditch and rebuild a 600-foot section of roadway, the Oregon Department of Transportation said. (Courtesy: Oregon State Police)

IDANHA, Ore. — A stretch of Highway 22 will be closed for much of this week as crews clean up gasoline and diesel fuel that leaked out of a crashed tanker truck near Idanha along the North Santiam River, state transportation authorities said Monday.

The highway between Idanha and Santiam Junction is unlikely to reopen until Friday or Saturday as crews remove contaminated soil in a roadside ditch and rebuild a 600-foot section of roadway, the Oregon Department of Transportation said.

An oil sheen was visible on the North Santiam River downstream of the crash site, but officials said most of the tanker’s oil seeped into the ditch, where it was absorbed by the soil. It’s unclear how much entered the river, the Statesman Journal reported.

The city of Salem said Monday that its drinking water is safe and the oil from the spill has not reached its water treatment plant near Stayton, which is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away from the crash. The oil will take several days to reach the plant, the city said, and teams will test the river water at multiple locations this week. Crews have set up absorbent berms to capture the oil on the water.

If any fuel is detected in the river, the city will close the water intake gates as it did in a similar situation three years ago.

The crash on Sunday closed Highway 22 near Detroit and Santiam Junction. The truck was carrying 10,600 gallons of fuel total — 6,500 gallons of gasoline in a tanker trailer and 4,100 gallons of diesel in the truck’s tanker.

About 7,800 gallons of fuel emptied into a roadside ditch and the rest was recovered, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials.

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The Nation

FMCSA final rule lowers annual registration costs for motor carriers

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The reduction of the current 2019 registration year fees range from approximately $3 to $2,712 per entity, depending on the number of vehicles owned or operated by the affected entities. (iStock Photo)

WASHINGTON — Motor carriers will now see a reduction in the price they must pay to register their vehicles. On February 13, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released a final rule that realigns the fees for the Unified Carrier Registration Plan.

According to the document posted on the federal register last week, this rule establishes reductions in the annual registration fees the states collect from motor carriers, motor private carriers of property, brokers, freight forwarders and leasing companies for the UCR Plan and Agreement for the registration years beginning in 2020.

“For the 2020 registration year, the fees will be reduced by 14.45% below the 2018 registration fee level to ensure that fee revenues collected do not exceed the statutory maximum, and to account for the excess funds held in the depository,” the document reads. “The fees will remain at the same level for 2021 and subsequent years unless revised in the future.”

The reduction of the current 2019 registration year fees range from approximately $3 to $2,712 per entity, depending on the number of vehicles owned or operated by the affected entities.

The UCR Plan and the 41 States participating in the UCR Agreement establish and collect fees from motor carriers, motor private carriers of property, brokers, freight forwarders and leasing companies. The UCR Plan and Agreement are administered by a 15-member board of directors; 14 appointed from the participating states and the industry, plus the Deputy Administrator of FMCSA or another Presidential appointee from the Department, according to the final rule.

Revenues collected are allocated to the participating states and the UCR Plan. If annual revenue collections will exceed the statutory maximum allowed, then the UCR Plan must request adjustments to the fees. In addition, any excess funds held by the UCR Plan after payments are made to the states and for administrative costs are retained in the UCR depository, and fees subsequently charged must be adjusted further to return the excess revenues held in the depository.

Adjustments in the fees are requested by the UCR Plan and approved by FMCSA. These two provisions are the reasons for the two- stage adjustment adopted in this final rule.

“While each motor carrier will realize a reduced burden, fees are considered by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A–4, Regulatory Analysis as transfer payments, not costs. Transfer payments are payments from one group to another that do not affect total resources available to society. Therefore, transfers are not considered in the monetization of societal costs and benefits of rulemakings,” according to the document.

The rule states that the total state revenue target is more than $107 million.

For more information or the read the rule in its entirety, visit https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/rulemaking/2020-01761.

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